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Thursday, October 1, 2020

‘All We See Is Dead Bodies’: Floods and Mudslides Ravage Sierra Leone

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for the New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — Torrents of water rushed through the streets of the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown on Monday, causing mudslides that killed hundreds and trapped hundreds more in their homes and vehicles, officials said.

As many as 200 people were killed after heavy rains overnight deluged the city’s poor drainage system and created one of the most devastating floods Freetown has experienced.

Residents awakened Monday to find some streets filled waist-high with water, and roads in some areas were transformed into muddy raging rivers.

Residents reported bloated bodies floating down the streets and washing up on beaches.

By Monday morning, the county coroner’s office had run out of space, Sinneh Kamara, a coroner technician at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, told a local television station.

Officials were coordinating rescue and recovery efforts conducted by the armed forces and the Red Cross, and the government ordered people living in vulnerable areas on hilltops or close to the coastline to move to safer ground. Boats were warned to halt all sea travel because of the “life threatening” situation created by the heavy downpour.

The exact death toll was unknown, said Francis Languba Kellie, the director of the Office of National Security, and the count was expected to rise. He said emergency workers were trying to rescue survivors as more bodies were turning up.

“Our efforts is to look for more survivors, but so far all we see is dead bodies,” Mr. Kellie said.

On Monday, residents of the Kaningo neighborhood on the west side of Freetown were going about the gruesome task of collecting the dead even as floodwaters had yet to recede — one body was retrieved from up a tree. The neighborhood was among the hardest hit by rampaging floodwaters, which washed away a bridge and left homes caked in mud and debris. Boxes, plastic containers and furniture were scattered among the homes in the neighborhood, and residents’ belongings were stuck in tree branches and on rooftops.

Young people used ropes to retrieve some bodies from the fast-running water, according to witnesses. Many of the victims were children, they said.

Several bodies were piled up on a soccer field in the neighborhood, waiting to be taken to the mortuary.

Alimamy Zachariah Barrie, a resident of Kaningo, said more than 15 ambulances were on hand to transport the dead.

“They have retrieved over 50 bodies so far,” said Mr. Barrie, who added that many people were also seriously injured. Other residents had complained that there were not enough ambulances to transport the injured.

In another neighborhood of the capital, Regent, the rain caused a massive mudslide that killed seven members of the same family, including children, when the two-story building in which they lived collapsed.

Elsewhere in the city, several people were stuck in vehicles surrounded by floodwaters. Local television broadcast images of people standing on rooftops waiting to be rescued. Some homes were submerged, and many properties were flattened altogether.

Freetown is dotted with scores of informal settlements, many of which are on hilltops or close to the sea, making them vulnerable to landslides and flooding. The city is also one of the wettest in West Africa, receiving more than 20 inches of rainfall on average in August, the wettest month of the year.

Still, the country‘s drainage system is insufficient, and many Sierra Leoneans say this is a main cause for most of the flooding in the country.

In September 2015, just as the country was dealing with the devastating effects of an outbreak of Ebola that killed thousands in the region, a huge flood in the capital killed at least seven people and left several thousand homeless.

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