A week of national mourning will be held in Sierra Leone as emergency workers struggle to recover hundreds of people who remain buried following a mudslide on Monday morning.
Almost 400 bodies have been found so far, with a further 600 people still unaccounted for, according to the Red Cross.
At least 100 houses were engulfed when a hillside in Regent, a mountainous town 15 miles east of Freetown, collapsed in the early hours of Monday morning. A national emergency has been declared and the country’s national security level has been moved to three, the highest status. A minute’s silence will be held in honour of victims at midday on Wednesday.
The UN is assessing the threat of another mudslide or further flooding. Linnea Van Wagenen, working for the UN in Sierra Leone, said on Tuesday: “We have the mountains and very steep hillsides. [It’s very hard to] access these areas, where it’s muddy, it’s slippery – there’s a risk of a second landslide. We’re not sure how this massive landslide has affected the ground around it.”
Burials for 150 victims took place on Tuesday evening, according to Sulaiman Zaino Parker, an official with Freetown’s city council. The graves would be specially marked for future identification, he added.
“We have started burying some of the mutilated and decomposed bodies. All the corpses will be given a dignified burial with Muslim and Christian prayers,” Parker told Agence France-Presse.
Many of the bodies are to be laid to rest in Waterloo, 20 miles south-east of Freetown, alongside victims of the country’s Ebola crisis, which claimed almost 4,000 lives when the virus spread across the country in 2014.
The government has asked bereaved families to identify their loved ones at the Connaught hospital mortuary on Wednesday. All unidentified corpses will be given a dignified burial on 17 and 18 August, the office of the president said in a statement.
Ismail Tarawali, head of the office of national security, said on Tuesday that the government had no choice but to begin burials. “The hospital mortuary is overwhelmed right now and it is really our only option,” he said. Body bags are being donated by charities and NGOs.
“We’re hoping to organise as well as we can to get every last person identified, but it’s a complicated process,” he said.
Two people were rescued alive from a damaged building on Tuesday, bringing the total number of rescued survivors to 73, according to Rajesh Srivastava, country manager for Sierra Leone Red Cross. The chances of finding survivors is low, he added.
The search for bodies is being carried out by the army, Sierra Leonean police and Red Cross volunteers. But recovery efforts have been hampered by the country’s dangerous terrain, a lack of equipment and the sheer scale of the tragedy. The mudslide, which trapped residents while they were sleeping, is thought to have travelled for two miles.
The deputy health minister, Madina Rahman, said Freetown was now facing a possible cholera outbreak, as a result of the stagnant water pooling in the streets.
Addressing the media on Tuesday, president Ernest Bai Koroma said the devastation “was overwhelming us”. “Entire communities have been wiped out,” Koroma said. “We need urgent support now.”
Srivastava said: “The situation is still emerging but there are some things that need immediate attention such as linking [lost relatives] with their families. [Providing] non-food items and shelter is another need, [as well as] psychosocial care for survivors and people who have lost their families.”
An estimated 9,000 people have been affected in some way by the disaster, according to Abdul Nasir, programme coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.