The hunt for survivors of the deadly mudslide in Sierra Leone continued Tuesday as the official death toll rose to 245, with numbers expected to grow and hundreds still missing.
“More bodies have been discovered. The number rose from 205 to 245, the search continued this morning, and we expect that number to rise,” Abu Bakarr, spokesman for the Red Cross in Sierra Leone, told CNN on Tuesday.
Heavy rain, normally a blessing at this time of year in West Africa, turned into a nightmare on Monday when flooding caused torrents of mud to wash down Mount Sugar Loaf about five miles outside the capital Freetown, according to government officials and aid agencies.
A chunk of the mountain came down under the force of the water, onto the houses that hugged the slopes, many of them little more than wooden shacks with tin roofs in this desperately poor nation.
“Social welfare is out on the streets of Freetown registering and talking to survivors as we try to ascertain exactly how many people are missing,” Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesman for President Ernest Koroma, told CNN.
He said that a Sierra Leonean and a Chinese construction company had provided heavy-duty excavation equipment to help the military looking for people under the mud and rubble.
“Many of our compatriots have lost their lives, many more have been gravely injured and billions of Leones worth of property destroyed in the flooding and landslides that swept across some parts of our city,” President Ernest Koroma said in his speech Monday.
“I am very disturbed by this national tragedy and with a heavy heart, let me extend profound condolences to the bereaved families. This is not a tragedy for you alone; it is a tragedy for every Sierra Leonean because the people who have perished in this disaster are our compatriots. Every single family, every single ethnic group, every single region is either directly or indirectly affected by this disaster.”
Koroma said the government and development partners had established an emergency response center to coordinate its response to the disaster and provide relief to survivors. He called for calm and asked that people avoid disaster-prone areas.
‘Whole country traumatized’
The United Nations office in Sierra Leone said on its Twitter account that it was assessing the damage and preparing a response.
Abdulai Bayraytay, spokesman for Koroma, earlier told CNN the immediate priority was to help the victims.
“At the moment, we are concentrating on search and rescue and providing medical and therapeutic support to the community affected,” he said.
Bayraytay said the place most affected was Mortema, which is a few miles outside of the capital in the Regent district.
The police, military and the Office of National Security were all involved in the rescue mission.
“We have alerted all hospitals so that those rescued can be provided with immediate support on site or be ferried to hospitals,” Bayraytay said.
Social workers have also been sent to comfort the survivors.
“The whole country is traumatized by the magnitude of the disaster,” he added.
Bayraytay said President Koroma had already visited the scene “to provide words of comfort to the victims”.
Vice President Victor Foh told Reuters that hundreds of people could be lying dead underneath the rubble.
“The disaster is so serious that I myself feel broken,” he was reported as saying. “We’re trying to cordon (off) the area (and) evacuate the people.
Charity: Children among missing
The charity Save the Children confirmed that a staff member and his young children are among the hundreds of people missing.
Another Save the Children staff member, Ramatu Jalloh, was near the scene when the disaster happened.
“We were driving on the main road out of Freetown past Regent when a lady ran onto the road and started gesticulating wildly. She called out to another lady who had been riding a bike in front of us who, after a brief conversation, started crying and looked very upset,” she said.
“It was clear from their reactions that something terrible had happened. Soon afterward, another man ran towards our car. He was crying about the number of lives that had been lost.”
“As we continued down the road we could see there was a serious issue. Tons of water was rushing across the road, splitting it in half. We contacted the Save the Children office immediately to tell them that something was seriously wrong.”
600 still unaccounted for
All of the 245 bodies located so far have been brought to the central morgue at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, according to Bakarr from the Red Cross.
Another 600 people are still believed to be unaccounted for, and between 2,000 and 3,000 have been displaced, Bakarr said.
“The scenes are heartbreaking, with the sounds of wailing and mourning everywhere as relatives struggle to cope with the loss of loved ones and the complete devastation of their homes and settlements,” said James Chifwelu, national director of the charity World Vision in Sierra Leone.
“It’s disturbing that so many lives have been lost following this heavy rain and mudslide. But it’s most disturbing that many children in their school uniforms were unfortunately fatally caught up in the landslide and many more are homeless, orphaned and will be without food and clothing for days to come. This certainly calls for immediate action.”
It is the rainy season in Sierra Leone and this year has been particularly wet, with Freetown receiving more than 27 inches of rain between July 1 and August 13 — more than double the average of 11.8 inches, according to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
It is the rainy season in Sierra Leone and this year has been particularly wet, with Freetown receiving more than 41 inches of rain since July 1 — about triple the average of 13.8 inches, according to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
Save the Children said that in addition to the mudslides, torrential flooding had destroyed buildings and left homes underwater in low-lying areas of Freetown.
“The mudslide swept down from the hills on the outskirts of Freetown early this morning and spared nothing in its path,” said Sasha Ekanayake, Save the Children’s Sierra Leone Country Director. “Houses are buried and entire families are missing, including children.”
Ekanayake said children needed to be given shelter so that they were protected from deadly waterborne diseases as the flood waters recedes.
“We are still in the rainy season and must be prepared to respond in the event of further emergencies to come,” she said.