FREETOWN (AFP) - President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone said Tuesday (Aug 15) that his country needed "urgent support now" for thousands of people affected by massive flooding and mudslides in the capital of one of the world's poorest nations.
Addressing the media in the Regent hilltop community of Freetown, one of the areas hit hardest by a mudslide that has destroyed homes, Koroma fought back tears as he said the devastation "was overwhelming us".
"Entire communities have been wiped out," Koroma said at the disaster site, where heavy rains streaming down the hillside engulfed homes three or four stories high on Monday, many of them built illegally.
The Red Cross has said it was struggling to bring enough equipment to the site to excavate those buried deeply in the mud, but several bodies were extracted by available machinery at the site on Tuesday morning, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
Rescue workers pulled more bodies from destroyed houses and muddy pools in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown on Tuesday, where more than 300 people have died in flooding and mudslides.
But as officials spoke of entire communities washed away in mudslides, rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of equipment and the challenges posed the search and excavation work.
The government has promised relief to the more than 3,000 people left homeless, opening an emergency response centre in the hilltop community of Regent. Israel and Britain said they were sending aid as quickly as possible to the stricken west African city.
Registration centres to count the homeless opened across Freetown, a city of around one million people, while Interior Minister Paolo Conteh told Sierra Leone's state broadcaster that thousands of people remained missing.
Red Cross spokesman Patrick Massaquoi told AFP on Monday that while the death toll was 312, this was expected to rise as his team assessed disaster areas in Freetown. Another Red Cross official, Abu Bakarr Tarrawallie, put the death toll at 245 in an email to AFP on Tuesday, while local media and officials all gave different tolls.
"There is a challenge of expertise in search and excavation and inadequate machines to excavate the submerged houses," Tarawallie told AFP. "Registration of affected people is ongoing now to ascertain total number of affected people later on."
Survivors required "immediate" shelter, medical and food assistance, he added, and dozens of injured people were receiving treatment. Abdul Nasir, programme coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), earlier said entire communities "seem to have been washed away and whatever is left is covered in mud".
'Gripped by grief'
Three days of torrential rain culminated on Monday in a mudslide in Regent, the worst-affected area, and caused massive flooding elsewhere in the city, one of the world's wettest urban areas.
Makeshift settlements that clung to the hills and shores were swept away or torn apart. The city's drainage system was quickly overwhelmed, leaving stagnant water pooling in some areas while creating dangerous churning waterways down steep streets.
In an address to the nation on Monday, President Ernest Bai Koroma appealed for unity in a country still struggling with the legacy of Ebola and a long civil war. "Our nation has once again been gripped by grief. Many of our compatriots have lost their lives, many more have been gravely injured and billions of leones' worth of property destroyed," he said. "Every single family, every single ethnic group, every single region is either directly or indirectly affected by this disaster."
Sierra Leone meteorological department issued no warning ahead of the torrential rains, which might have allowed for swifter evacuations from the disaster zones, AFP's correspondent based in Freetown said.
Foreign governments meanwhile began mobilising aid to Freetown. Israel's foreign ministry said it would provide "assistance immediately and in every way possible" including clean water, medicines and blankets.
British International Development Secretary Priti Patel said she was "deeply saddened" by the devastation and the loss of life there. London was "already working with the government of Sierra Leone to coordinate the rescue efforts and are ready to provide further assistance to those in need," Patel added.
The scale of the human cost was clear at the city's main morgue at the Connaught Hospital, which was overwhelmed with bodies on Monday. Freetown residents spoke of their struggles to cope with the destruction and find their loved ones.
An AFP journalist saw several homes submerged in Regent village, a hilltop community, and corpses floating in the water in the Lumley West area of the city.
Deputy Information Minister Cornelius Deveaux confirmed on Monday that Koroma had declared a national emergency. He said his own boss, Information Minister Mohamed Bangura, was in hospital, having been injured in the flooding.
Hundreds of people had lost their lives and had properties damaged, said Deveaux, as he promised food and other assistance for the victims. Freetown is hit each year by flooding during several months of rain, raising the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera.
Flooding in the capital in 2015 killed 10 people and left thousands homeless.
Sierra Leone was one of the west African nations hit by an outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014 that left more than 4,000 people dead in the country, and it has struggled to revive its economy since the crisis. The country ranked 179th out of 188 countries on the UNDP's 2016 Human Development Index, a basket of data combining life expectancy, education and income and other factors.