At least 312 people were killed and more than 2,000 left homeless on Monday when heavy flooding hit Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, leaving excavators to pull bodies from rubble and overwhelming the city’s morgues.
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, as the president assured emergency services were doing all they could to tackle one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the city.
Red Cross spokesman Patrick Massaquoi told AFP the death toll was 312 but could rise further as his team continued to survey disaster areas in Freetown and tally the number of dead.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to UN indicators.
“I counted over 300 bodies and more are coming,” Mohamed Sinneh, a morgue technician at Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, told AFP, having earlier described an “overwhelming number of dead” at the facility leaving no space to lay out every body.
Many more of the dead were taken to private morgues, Sinneh said.
President Ernest Bai Koroma said in an address to the nation broadcast on television late Monday that an emergency response centre had been established at Regent, the worst-affected area.
He appealed for unity from a nation 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 in the flooding and landslides that swept across some parts of our city,” he said.
“Every single family, every single ethnic group, every single region is either directly or indirectly affected by this disaster,” Koroma said.
He announced that centres would be set up across the city to register those made homeless and praised the military, police and Red Cross volunteers, deployed in an all-out effort to locate those trapped.
Images obtained by AFP showed ferocious, churning dark-orange mud coursing down a steep street in the capital, while videos posted by local residents showed people waist- or chest-deep in water trying to cross the road.
The Sierra Leone meteorological department did not issue any warning ahead of the torrential rains to hasten evacuation from the disaster zones, AFP’s correspondent based in Freetown said.
Fatmata Sesay, who lives on the hilltop area of Juba, said she, her three children and husband were awoken at 4:30am by rain pounding on the mud house they occupy, which was by then submerged by water.
“I only managed to escape by climbing to the roof of the house when neighbours came in to rescue me,” she said.
“We have lost everything and we do not have a place to sleep,” she told AFP in tears.
Deputy Information Minister Cornelius Deveaux earlier confirmed Koroma had called a national emergency, and said his own boss, Information Minister Mohamed Bangura, was in hospital after being injured in the flooding.
Deveaux said “hundreds” of people had lost their lives and had properties damaged, and promised food and other assistance for the victims.
He called on the public to remain calm with rescue efforts underway.
The scale of the human cost of the floods only became clear on Monday afternoon, as images of battered corpses piled on top of each other circulated and residents spoke of their struggles to cope with the destruction and find their loved ones.
Meanwhile, disaster management official Vandy Rogers said that “over 2,000 people are homeless,” hinting at the huge humanitarian effort that will be required to deal with the fallout of the flooding in one of Africa’s poorest nations.
Freetown, an overcrowded coastal city of 1.2 million, is hit each year by flooding during several months of rain that destroys makeshift settlements and raises the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera.
Sasha Ekanayake, Save the Children’s Sierra Leone Country Director, said the immediate priority was to provide shelter and protect residents, especially children, from the spread of deadly waterborne diseases.
“We are still in the rainy season and must be prepared to respond in the event of further emergencies to come,” she said in a statement.
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.
About 60 percent of people in Sierra Leone live below the national poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
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.