Sunday, 24 September 2017

At least 600 people are still missing following a mudslide and flooding that devastated parts of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, a spokesman for the president has told the BBC.

President Ernest Bai Koroma earlier pleaded for "urgent support", saying entire communities had been wiped out.

Nearly 400 people are confirmed dead after a mudslide in the Regent area and floods elsewhere in Freetown on Monday.

The Red Cross has warned it is a race against time to find survivors.

A mass burial of victims is planned on Wednesday to free up space in mortuaries.

Presidential spokesman Abdulai Baraytay told the BBC that bodies were still being pulled from the mud and rubble.

"The entire community is now in mourning. Loved ones are still missing, well over 600 people," he said.

 
Sierra Leone mudslides: Rescue and recovery operation in Freetown

The UN said its teams in Sierra Leone had mobilised and were supporting rescue efforts.

"Contingency plans are being put in place to mitigate any potential outbreak of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were engulfed after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain early on Monday. Many victims were asleep in bed when disaster struck.

President Koroma fought back tears as he toured Regent on Monday and said the devastation was "overwhelming us".

"Entire communities have been wiped out. We need urgent support now," he said.

Map shows the location of the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown

He urged people to stay away from the affected areas.

"This tragedy of great magnitude has once again challenged us to come together, to stand by each other and to help one another," he said.

Flooding is not unusual in Sierra Leone, where unsafe housing in makeshift settlements can be swept away by heavy rains.

The rains often hit areas in and around Freetown, an overcrowded coastal city of more than one million people.

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DAKAR, Senegal — Torrents of water rushed through the streets of the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown on Monday, causing mudslides that killed hundreds and trapped hundreds more in their homes and vehicles, officials said.

As many as 200 people were killed after heavy rains overnight deluged the city’s poor drainage system and created one of the most devastating floods Freetown has experienced.

Residents awakened Monday to find some streets filled waist-high with water, and roads in some areas were transformed into muddy raging rivers. Some reported bloated bodies floating down the streets and washing up on beaches.

By Monday morning, the county coroner’s office had run out of space, Sinneh Kamara, a coroner technician at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, told a local television station.

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Volunteers and health care workers awaited the arrival of more bodies at Connaught Hospital. CreditJane Hahn for The New York Times

Officials were coordinating rescue and recovery efforts conducted by the armed forces and the Red Cross, and the government ordered people living in vulnerable areas on hilltops or close to the coastline to move to safer ground. Boats were warned to halt all sea travel because of the “life threatening” situation created by the heavy downpour.

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The exact death toll was unknown, said Francis Langumba Keili, the director of the Office of National Security, and the count was expected to rise. He said emergency workers were trying to rescue survivors as more bodies were turning up.

“Our efforts is to look for more survivors, but so far all we see is dead bodies,” Mr. Keili said.

On Monday, residents of the Kaningo neighborhood on the west side of Freetown were going about the gruesome task of collecting the dead even as floodwaters had yet to recede — one body was retrieved from up a tree. The neighborhood was among the hardest hit by rampaging floodwaters, which washed away a bridge and left homes caked in mud and debris. Boxes, plastic containers and furniture were scattered among the homes in the neighborhood, and residents’ belongings were stuck in tree branches and on rooftops.

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In Freetown, residents cut through debris to free the body of a woman killed in the mudslide. CreditJane Hahn for The New York Times

Young people used ropes to retrieve some bodies from the fast-running water, according to witnesses. Many of the victims were children, they said.

Several bodies were piled up on a soccer field in the neighborhood, waiting to be taken to the mortuary.

Alimamy Zachariah Barrie, a resident of Kaningo, said more than 15 ambulances were on hand to transport the dead.

“They have retrieved over 50 bodies so far,” said Mr. Barrie, who added that many people were also seriously injured. Other residents had complained that there were not enough ambulances to transport the injured.

In another neighborhood of the capital, Regent, the rain caused a massive mudslide that killed seven members of the same family, including children, when the two-story building in which they lived collapsed. Three people trapped in another building in Regent had been calling for help all morning, but the house was still inaccessible as of Monday night because of mud from a slide that reportedly wiped out half the land in the neighborhood.

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A house in Freetown was surrounded by water. Some homes were submerged, and many buildings were flattened altogether. CreditJane Hahn for The New York Times

Elsewhere in the city, several people were stuck in vehicles surrounded by floodwaters. Local television broadcast images of people standing on rooftops waiting to be rescued. Some homes were submerged, and many properties were flattened altogether.

Freetown is dotted with scores of informal settlements, many of which are on hilltops or close to the sea, making them vulnerable to landslides and flooding. The city is also one of the wettest in West Africa, receiving more than 20 inches of rainfall on average in August, the wettest month of the year.

In an interview in June, Oswald Hanciles, a spokesman for President Ernest Bai Koroma, warned that homes constructed precariously on hillsides in defiance of government regulations posed a significant risk to residents and the environment. He said that residents were building recklessly and cutting down trees that would otherwise help protect the land.

Still, many Sierra Leoneans say the country’s drainage system is insufficient and this is a main cause for most of the flooding in the country.

In September 2015, just as the country was dealing with the devastating effects of an outbreak of Ebola that killed thousands in the region, a huge flood in the capital killed at least seven people and left several thousand homeless.

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Rescue workers cleared debris and dug through mud as they searched for bodies. CreditJane Hahn for The New York Times
 
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