Kenya: Rescuers battle to recover mudslide victims

NAIROBI, 13 August 2007 (IRIN) - Kenya's capacity to deal with disasters has been in the spotlight again after rescuers fought to locate people buried alive when mudslides smashed into their homes during heavy rainfall in the country's western region.

A spokesman for the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) said five bodies had been recovered from the scene at Khusavali village, Kakamega North District.

"We expect that up to 13 people are still buried under the mud," KRCS spokesman Anthony Mwangi said on 13 August. Some 65 people sustained injuries.

Two mudslides hit the village early in the morning, then again several hours later on 11 August. Most of the missing were volunteer rescuers who were trying to help victims of the first mudslide. They were swept away by the second mudslide and are believed to be dead, Mwangi said.

He described rescue efforts as "painstaking" because the ground was still water-logged and excavation work could trigger further mudslides.

Some 14 families were evacuated from their homes and accommodated in 10 temporary shelters. Those affected were supplied with blankets, cooking utensils, tarpaulins, jerry cans and soap by the KRCS.

"We expect that the number of [displaced] families will increase because there is still the threat of more earth movement," Mwangi said.

Almost 100 volunteers from KCRS and the National Youth Service were leading the rescue efforts with members of the provincial administration and the police.

Jane Kamau, an officer with the National Disaster Operations Centre, said the government had dispatched three tonnes of food to the village and that soldiers were expected to join the rescue effort on 13 August.

The area where the mudslide happened is on a slope once covered by forest. Villagers said the tragedy could be the result of deforestation by local farmers.

Experts have in the past raised concerns over Kenya's ability to respond to sudden major disasters.

After a wave of earthquake tremors hit the capital Nairobi in July, Major Stephen Sane, the acting head of Kenya's National Disaster Operations Centre, said the country lacked specialist equipment and emergency medical services.