Disaster management personnel in Pretoria monitor a low-water bridge closed due to flooding. Picture: Etienne Creux

Loss of life and damage to property and infrastructure, which is set to cost the country billions, could have been minimised had the government heeded a warning by weather experts last August.

Instead, South African authorities ignored the flood warning - issued about four months before the devastating rains began in mid-December.

A senior manager of the national disaster management centre, Mmaphaka Tau, told dismayed MP’s in Cape Town on Wednesday how things could have been different had the country responded to the warning.

As of the end of last week, 74 people had been killed in the floods, 33 district municipalities across eight provinces had been declared disaster areas, more than 8600 houses had been damaged and 275 people had been injured.

The damage estimates stand at R1.5 billion, with reports from some provinces still outstanding.

In kwaZulu-Natal, where five municipal districts have been declared disaster areas, more than R700 million in damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and farms has already been calculated.

Tau told MPs that predictions of a La Nina event with potential above-normal rain had been issued by the SA Weather Services in August 2010.

The Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum had also forecast this weather pattern for the sub-region in2010.

“We were found wanting at SADC (Southern African Development Community) in October when they asked for our contingency plans,” he told MP’s, before adding that the centre had capacity problems.

Tau said the La Nina weather patterns were expected to continue until sometime between March and May. “This implies that the likelihood for further above-normal rainfall over the summer rainfall regions is high,” he said. “We can expect periods of typical summer weather with some thunderstorms, and then again short periods of heavy rain.”

Tau said, though, that the situation was not normal for the country.

“If we were prepared, we could have dealt with it better,” he said. “We were kind of aware that we could have this situation.”

MP’s slammed the slow response, questioning why disaster management had reacted after the incidents when a warning had been issued months before.

“There were predictions in August that things might happen,” said ANC MP Mwelo Nonkonyana. “I think forewarned is forearmed. One of the key things in the Disaster Management Act is that there must be a forecast and steps must be taken.”

Meanwhile, in a comprehensive report tabled before the kwaZulu-Natal provincial parliament on Wednesday, a resolution was taken to declare the uThukela, Sisonke, Amajuba and Ilembe districts and eThekwini municipality disaster areas.

According to the report, 88 people had died and 22 519 had been left in distress. This included 147 injured and 6271 households destroyed.

Disaster relief efforts were being co-ordinated through the kwaZulu-Natal disaster management team, led by Nomusa Dube, MEC for co-operative governance.

Co-operative governance spokesman Lennox Mabaso said disasters were never budgeted for.

“Only an operational budget is allocated and used as a machinery to respond,” he said. “The other funds will have to come from other departments and from the national government.”

Apart from the damage to houses and infrastructure in kwaZulu-Natal, there is also the cost of social support, project management, food parcels and relief stock.

Mabaso said kwaZulu-Natal had suffered more serious disasters in the past.

“In 2007, the eThekwini municipality was hit by tidal waves which cost more than R3 billion and in the same year the province experienced runaway fires at a cost of hundreds of millions,” he said.

He said that the government’s response in 2011 - evacuations, food parcels and temporary shelter - had helped reduce the damage from the floods.

An eThekwini municipality spokesman, Thabo Mofokeng, said Cottonlands in Verulam, Osindisweni, Folweni and uThongathi had also been badly affected by floods. - The Mercury