Updated 12:55 a.m. ET Tuesday:
More than 300 people have been killed and hundreds more are still missing after torrential rains on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown caused a mountainside to collapse onto a residential community.
The country’s national broadcaster announced late Monday that the death toll had risen above 300, and it’s expected to go higher.
Sinneh Kamara, a coroner’s technician, told The Associated Press that the mortuary at Connaught Hospital was overwhelmed by the number of dead, and bodies had to be spread out on the floor.
Abu Bakarr Tarawallie, the head of communications for Sierra Leone’s Red Cross Society, tells The Two-Way: Some 600 people remain unaccounted for as rescuers continue digging through the mountain of mud to find survivors and recover bodies.
“It is likely that hundreds are lying dead underneath the rubble,” Sierra Leone’s Vice President Victor Foh told Reuters while visiting the scene of the mudslide. “This disaster is so serious that I feel myself broken. … We’re trying to cordon the area. Evacuate the people.”
Tarawallie says recovery efforts face serious challenges. “We are not sure if we will be able to recover all of them considering the herculean task of reaching them out of the depths of the huge mud brought down by the slide,” Tarawallie says. “We’re not sure of the capacity that exists for them to be reached before they decompose.”
Video posted by the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation show strong, churning rivers of mud flowing down streets and through houses. “It appears many people were still sleeping when heavy rains triggered the mudslide which engulfed the area,” NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported.
The damage is extreme, says International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Programme Coordinator Abdul Nasir: “In places, entire communities seem to have been washed away and whatever is left is covered in mud,” he said.
Up to 3,000 people are believed to have lost their homes, Tarawallie says. “It is estimated that over 100 houses are affected, and about 25 houses were submerged in the mud.”
Efforts to aid the people who have lost their homes have been “a little bit chaotic,” he says. “No organized structure or shelter has been put in place for them.” He says that the Red Cross is currently working on a response to help the people who have survived the mudslide.
Reuters spoke with Salimatu Bangura, who lives in the flooded area and lost her brother this morning. “We were asleep when we heard the noise of one of the walls falling down. By the time we got up water was flowing in and the whole house was flooded,” she said.
Tarawallie stresses that Sierra Leone regularly experiences floods and mudslides due to heavy downpours. He adds: “The only particularity of this is that it is unprecedented that for the first time we are having this magnitude of impact and huge loss of property and lives.”
According to the wire service, deforestation and poor urban planning have exacerbated the dangers in Sierra Leone during the rainy season.
“There is little to no urban planning going on in the city at all levels of society,” Jamie Hitchen of the Africa Research Institute told The Guardian. “The government is failing to provide housing for the poorest in society. There is a chronic housing deficit in the city and the issues only get discussed on an annual basis when flooding happens and [it] comes into the spotlight.”