Sierra Leone counts its dead after devastating flood

Hundreds of residents queue in Freetown to identify the victims of a deadly mudslide, amid fears that if the bodies are not buried soon they could spark a public health emergency.
Workers move debris before searching for trapped bodies in the neighbourhood of SS Camp, where homes were destroyed by a mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Monday. Residents of the poor communities built into the capital city's unstable hillsides
Workers move debris before searching for trapped bodies in the neighbourhood of SS Camp, where homes were destroyed by a mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Monday. Residents of the poor communities built into the capital city's unstable hillsides have suffered the most in the deluge.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Hundreds dead, 600 more missing after rain turns capital's streets into rivers of mud

DAKAR (Senegal) • The bodies floated down the streets and piled up at the morgue, where the coroners struggled to find room for all of the dead.

An already devastating flood on Monday produced even more anguish the day after in Sierra Leone as residents of Freetown, the capital, dug through the mud in search of missing family members.

The Red Cross said hundreds of people had been killed and 600 were missing after torrential rain early on Monday caused mudslides and transformed city streets into fast-moving rivers of muddy water, washing away everything in their path. One worker at the city's morgue, who was not authorised to speak to reporters, said he had seen as many as 400 bodies there.

Residents of the poor communities built into the capital city's unstable hillsides suffered the most.

Their homes - shacks, really - were quickly buried or violently swept away in the deluge. Aid groups estimated that 3,000 people had been left homeless.

On Tuesday, aid organisation Save the Children said that one of its staff and his young children were among the hundreds missing. Many were thought to be entombed under tonnes of mud.

 

President Ernest Bai Koroma fought back tears and said the devastation was "overwhelming us", as he toured Regent, one of the worst-hit areas.

PLEA FOR HELP

Entire communities have been wiped out. We need urgent support now.

PRESIDENT ERNEST BAI KOROMA

"Entire communities have been wiped out," Mr Koroma said on Tuesday. "We need urgent support now.

"Let me assure you that my government is fully engaged on this situation," the President said, advising people to remain calm and avoid areas still vulnerable to slides.

Despite the President's pledge, it was clear that rescue and clean-up efforts would take time: Recovery teams lacked the appropriate equipment to dig through the extensive mud and debris.

Phone and power outages spread across the city, and some roads were impassable. Homes that were still standing were caked in mud and coated with debris.

"We are also fearful of outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid," spokesman for the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society Abu Bakarr Tarawallie told Reuters. "We can only hope that this does not happen."

The Freetown morgue had reached capacity on Monday, but bodies kept arriving. They were stacked outside, where residents gathered to try to identify missing family members. The stench was overwhelming.

Mr Mohamed Koroma, a university student in Freetown who visited the morgue on Tuesday, said people had to cover their faces with masks. "It's like we are back again with Ebola," he said, speaking of the 2014 outbreak that killed thousands in Sierra Leone and neighbouring nations. "This is too much for us as a country."

Several countries and the United Nations have pledged support, including Nigeria, Israel and Liberia.

Local and international aid organisations were helping to find survivors and retrieve the dead.

Mr Augustine Bright, a resident, said he had lost 10 family members. When he arrived at the morgue to look for them, he was given a mask and led through hundreds of bodies strewn about the floor. Some were zipped up in body bags, he said, apparently ready for burial.

Government officials have said that people can claim their relatives' bodies or choose to have the government bury them. Mr Bright could not find any of his missing relatives on Tuesday. After leaving the morgue, he returned to the patch of mud where his family's home still stood. His elder brother and others were still trapped inside. He had no idea whether they were alive.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and is ranked 179th out of 188 countries on the UN Development Programme's 2016 Human Development Index, a basket of data combining life expectancy, education and income and other factors.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Sierra Leone counts its dead after devastating flood'. Print Edition | Subscribe