Freetown (AFP) – Aid workers in Sierra Leone warned of a humanitarian crisis on Friday as the official death toll passed 400, with more than a hundred children among the victims — and a similar number orphaned.
Heavy rains that hit the capital Freetown on Monday triggered the partial collapse of a hillside that engulfed homes and caused massive destruction across the coastal capital.
By Friday, the rescue operation had evolved into a protracted search for 600 missing people, whom officials said were unlikely to be alive.
The uncollected corpses pose a serious risk to public health, Save the Children said on Friday.
“Two suspected cases of cholera have already been reported by rescue teams,” Save the Children said in a statement.
“Dead bodies can still be found in water sources and outbreaks of diarrhoea, malaria and other deadly diseases remain a serious risk,” it added.
The agency is distributing sanitary and hygiene products in Freetown.
For the first time Friday, the Red Cross confirmed an official death toll of more than 400.
According to Save The Children, 122 of the dead were children and it said that the disaster had also orphaned 123 children.
Earlier Friday the secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, Elhadj As Sy, warned that many of the estimated 3,000 displaced were still sleeping outside “because there are not enough shelters for everybody.”
Sy said the government of the west African country was facing a crisis “way beyond (its) capacity” and appealed to the international community to significantly ramp up its support.
The organisation has warned that smaller mudslides have occurred since Monday in eastern Freetown and in Sierra Leone’s second city of Bo, with the rainy season far from over.
More than 300 victims were buried on Thursday in a ceremony in the nearby town of Waterloo to clear the overwhelmed central morgue. They were laid to rest alongside victims of the country’s last crisis, Ebola.
‘Nothing can be enough’
Many people in the communities hit by the disaster said the emergency response had been too slow.
Updated close-up map of Freetown, hit by massive flooding which has left more than 400 people dead.
“On that very day, we were told to go and register. Up until now, we haven’t gotten anything. No medication for my child, no food,” Fatoumata Dumbuya said in the devastated hilltop community of Regent, where she shared a shack with six others.
AFP visited a school building in Regent where 350 people were living crammed together. Aid workers said survivors lacked basic necessities to stay warm.
“Nothing can be enough for now,” said Rosemary Blake of the Living Water SL charity. “We need blankets, we need used clothing or even unused clothing. We need shoes on their feet.”
Citizens and experts alike have questioned why the government has not done more to tackle illegal construction and deforestation on the outskirts of the overcrowded capital of Freetown.
In recent years, trees have been cut down from the Western peninsular forest on the city limits, with everything from shacks to mansions springing up haphazardly on the slopes.
The government has said that in the light of the catastrophe, relocation and a new settlement around the Freetown peninsula would be considered.
But similar measures have failed in the past as people seek to live close to the city centre for work.
‘Step up to the plate’
Meanwhile Britain, the former colonial power in Sierra Leone, announced £5 million ($6.45 million) in funding for several charities working on the ground.
Their funding targeting children’s bedding and clothing and clean water and sanitation for all survivors, as well as medical supplies.
“Our new support will provide basic life-saving supplies like food, water, shelter and clothing to people who have lost everything,” said Britain’s International Development Secretary Priti Patel.
“The international community must follow our lead and step up to the plate,” she added.
The Red Cross was preparing to launch an emergency funding appeal later Friday, while China has pledged $1 million, Togo $500,000.
Israel and several west African nations have contributed food and cash.
So far evacuations have been voluntary from affected areas, and Sy said this would remain the policy for the foreseeable future.
“Coming by force in the middle of hardship may not be the best way,” he added.