'People are digging by hand' - Goal's country director on rescue effort in aftermath of Sierra Leone flooding
Hundreds have died as a result of mudslides and flooding in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. GOAL’s Country Director there, Anna Fraenzel, explains how the tragedy occurred, who has been affected and what steps government and aid agencies need to take now to support those who have lost their loved ones and their homes:
While there are annual floods in Freetown associated with heavy rains, poor urban planning and over population, the death and destruction caused by Monday’s mudslide has caught everyone by surprise.
Not long before I arrived in Freetown, in October 2015, flooding resulted in 10 deaths and the temporary displacement of an estimated 14,000 people who had to be accommodated in the two main sports stadiums in the capital.
Although 300 bodies have been accounted for so far from this week’s tragedy, the death toll is expected to rise rapidly in the coming hours and days. Hundreds of people have also lost their homes, and with the floods having ripped through several informal slum settlements dotted throughout the city, thousands more are expected to be displaced.
That body count, however, already makes this one of the most devastating single day incidents to affect Freetown in its history with as many, if not more, people dying in the city in one 24-hour period than ever before.
And that includes any day during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, or even the recent Ebola crisis.
The mudslides were caused by heavy rains, which in turn, caused a hillside to collapse in the town of Regent, not far from the capital. Freetown has an estimated population of 1.2 million, and the scores of informal settlements, many of which are on hilltops or close to the sea, are all vulnerable to landslides and flooding.
It’s difficult to ascertain at this early stage exactly why this mudslide has caused so many more deaths than the one in 2015, but Monday’s event happened in a densely populated area, while the sheer amount of material that came down the mountain would also have been a factor.
But the most pressing priority for those supporting the relief efforts now is search and rescue - and that is continuing. It is an extremely difficult process, however. Freetown is built on very mountainous terrain and the rains are continuing. Many homes have been completely submerged. There is also a lack of large machinery in Freetown, so many people are digging by hand. Understandably, that slows down the process dramatically
Meanwhile, people who have been directly or indirectly affected by the flooding are already starting to gather in large numbers at community centres, school and other buildings seeking assistance. They are desperately in need of clean drinking water, food, clothing and other support.
And while these people need our help in the short-term, we also need to be aware that the rains are expected to continue over the coming weeks. That means that the overall health situation in the city is a serious concern right now. People living in communities where water and sanitation services have been particularly affected will be at risk.
Freetown was badly affected by the Ebola crisis, and avoiding another serious outbreak, such as cholera, is a high priority for the government and the agencies supporting the response effort.
Then there are other services, such as shelter, non-food items, general psychosocial support and family tracing and reunification, which will come more into play in the coming days and these also have to be provided.
GOAL has programmes in some of the areas that have been directly affected, and we are working with the Sierra Leone government, which is coordinating the relief effort, to support on assessments and to provide support to those working on registration of survivors.