With scant warning given, Nairobi flash flooding collapses buildings
Jane Mideva had just gone to bed on the night of April 29 when she heard screams. She scrambled down the stairs with her five children and saw tenants of the neighbouring building rushing outside and jumping from balconies.
“The building was swinging sideways,” she remembers. “Moments later, the upper floors caved in.”
The building – which is adjacent to Mideva’s in the Huruma estate, a poor district on the outskirts of Nairobi – collapsed as the city was hit with intense rains and flooding, killing 28 people and injuring over 130, according to the Kenya Red Cross.
Mideva’s own building, part of which sunk during the floods, has since been evacuated and slated for demolition, along with others near it deemed too risky by authorities.
“I knew it was raining heavily but didn’t receive any warning about actual floods,” Mideva said. “Now, I have been forced to move.”
She and her children have sought refuge at a nearby school. She said she intends to rent another house within Huruma – but this time away from the river, which ran near her old home.
In the last week of April, the Kenyan capital was hit by heavy rainfall which provoked landslides, widespread flooding and some homes being washed away.
Although flash floods are commonplace in Nairobi, this season’s rains have caused significantly more damage than in 2015, said Anthony Mwangi, head of corporate affairs at the Kenya Red Cross.
Nairobi received an all-time record for weekly rainfall last week, with 80 mm of rain by Friday – significantly more than the 12 mm predicted by the Kenya Meteorological Department for that period.
Other parts of Kenya also were hit by heavy rain. In the eastern counties of Mandera, Tana River and Garissa, rivers burst their banks, displacing hundreds of people.
David Adoyo, whose brother Fred Juma lived in the building that collapsed in Nairobi, said he has not heard from him and his eight-year-old nephew since the accident. Juma’s wife and their six-month-old daughter were rescued the day of the collapse.
Altogether, 80 people are still unaccounted for, authorities said.
“I have been trying to call him since last night but he hasn’t been picking up, and now his phone isn’t even going through,” Adoyo said.
Families in the area did not receive any warning that the building might collapse, he said.
As well as destroying homes and swamping cars, the flooding caused huge traffic jams in the already traffic-snarled capital.
Bus driver Ken Otieno set off for a routine trip from the city centre to Baba-Dogo, a surburb on the outskirts of the capital, which he expected would take 45 minutes.
Heavy rain started as he was just three kilometers away from the city, and within minutes the road was completely flooded. “I was stuck in traffic for two hours,” he said.
He sees no way to cope with the increasingly severe rainfall that makes his journeys interminable, as his work entails being on the road most of the day and evening. "Even with weather information there is nothing I can do because I have to work and provide for my family,” he said.
During late April’s heavy rainfall, many commuters were stuck in traffic for hours as most city roads flooded, while scores of motorists saw their cars washed off the road.
Simon Njogu, an insurance agency employee working in Nairobi, said he had to stay at his office in the evening until the rain subsided. “I am usually home for the seven o’clock news but I got back just before midnight,” he said.
The damage caused by the flooding was exacerbated by a lack of warning, said the city’s residents. In its March update, the Kenya Meteorological Department predicted “near average rainfall” in Kenya between March and May.
When heavy rainfall ensued at the end of April, the Met released another update predicting “showers in a few places” in the capital.
The National Transport and Safety Authority issued a warning asking motorists to avoid some Nairobi roads which were prone to flooding, but put out the warning only on May 1.
The Met Department has been criticised in the past for making incorrect predictions. In May 2014, the Kenya Seed Company blamed it for making inaccurate weather forecasts earlier that year that led to farming losses.
Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero has blamed poor drainage systems for recent flooding. City engineer Kinyua Wamugunda said the city is moving to address the problem.
“A masterplan improving key urban services such as energy, water and (waste) management, among others, is set to be implemented soon and will hopefully address the problem,” he said.
He pointed to local authorities ramping up the collection and disposal of trash drains in the city.
He urged residents to avoid littering, to help keep drains open. “Solid waste washes into trenches, which then blocks water from flowing and causes flooding,” he said.
Mwangi agrees that residents should share the responsibility of preparing for extreme weather events.
“Even when we inform people to move to higher grounds before floods, many do not move and hence become more vulnerable,” he said.