16 Aug 2017

Sierra Leone flooding: Nearly 400 dead, thousands homeless

7:06 am on 16 August 2017

Sierra Leone needs "urgent support" for thousands of people hit by mudslides and massive flooding in the capital, the country's president says.

This handout picture released on August 14, 2017, by Society 4 Climate Chnage Communication Sierra Leone, shows flooded streets in Regent near Freetown.

Floodwaters sweep through the Regent district on the outskirts of Freetown on Monday. Photo: AFP

Ernest Bai Koroma said entire communities had been wiped out and that the "devastation was overwhelming us".

Nearly 400 people have been killed and hundreds more are missing after muddy rubble swept through the Regent area near the capital, Freetown, on Monday.

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

Dozens more bodies were discovered on Tuesday, as rescue efforts to recover people from destroyed houses in the area continue.

The Red Cross, which said 312 bodies had been recovered on Monday, said it was struggling to get equipment in to extricate bodies buried deep in the mud.

The aid agency added that an estimated 600 people were still missing.

ActionAid humanitarian director Richard Miller said there were "currently over 1500 people reported missing", Sky News reports.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Paolo Conteh told Sierra Leone's state broadcaster that thousands of people remained unaccounted for.

Homes in Freetown were engulfed after part of the Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain early on Monday. Many victims were still asleep in their beds when disaster struck.

It is feared the number of dead will rise further. Another 3000 people are estimated to have lost their homes.

Sierra Leone president Ernest Bai Koroma, left, visits the site of a massive mudslide in Regent, near Freetown, on 15 August 2017.

Sierra Leone president Ernest Bai Koroma, left, at the site of a mudslide, said the devastation was overwhelming. Photo: AFP

Ishmael Charles, a charity worker for the Healey Relief Foundation and Caritas Freetown, told the BBC that words could not do justice to the scale of the tragedy.

"You will see a huge number of people crying with those who have lost their family members," he said.

"It's very difficult to paint what the reality looks like, because it's more scary and very sad and disastrous than anyone can be able to describe."

Family members search desperately for survivors

In the worst hit area, the Regent district, where dozens of houses were submerged when the hillside collapsed about 6am Monday GMT (6pm NZT), those who survived spoke of the family members they had lost - or still hoped to find alive.

"My wife is dead. My children are all dead. This morning my children and I talked before I left for work. One of them even chose the socks I should put on," a man called Malikie told the BBC.

Another woman, called Adama, said she was still searching for her baby.

"We were inside. We heard the mudslide approaching. We were trying to flee. I attempted to grab my baby but the mud was too fast. She was covered, alive.

"I have not seen my husband, Alhaji. My baby was just seven weeks old."

Residents watch the rescue operations at the side of a mud slide in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown on 15 August, 2017.

Residents watch rescue operations at the site of a mudslide in the Sierra Leone capital Freetown on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

International aid agency Save the Children said one member of staff, along with his children, had disappeared.

His colleague, Ramatu Jalloh, was driving past Regent at the same time that the wall of mud and debris hit the area.

"A lady ran on to the road and started gesticulating wildly," he said. "She called out to another lady who had been riding a bike in front of us who, after a brief conversation, started crying and looked very upset," she said.

"It was clear from their reactions that something terrible had happened. Soon afterwards, another man ran towards our car. He was crying about the number of lives that had been lost."

'We have lost everything'

Fatmata Sesay, who lives on the hilltop area of Juba, managed to survive the mudslide after she and her family were woken by the pounding rain.

It was then they realised their home had been submerged in water.

"I only managed to escape by climbing to the roof of the house when neighbours came in to rescue me," she told AFP.

"We have lost everything and we do not have a place to sleep."

Earlier, Mr Koroma 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.

"Let me assure you that my government is fully engaged on this situation and in collaboration with our development partners we have already established an emergency response centre at Regent to coordinate our response and to provide relief to the survivors."

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.

In 2015, Freetown endured deadly floods sparked by monsoon rains that killed 10 people and left thousands more homeless.