Red Cross responds to Sierra Leone mudslides

A distraught mother stands at the entrance of the morgue at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She is looking for her son, who is missing, feared dead after devastating mudslides, caused by torrential rain ripped through the capital on Monday.

Thousands of Freetown residents queue here, trying their best to deal with the grim reality that in a matter of hours or maybe minutes, they could be identifying the body of a loved one. Many of these people will find themselves the only surviving member of their family.

The government summoned these families to the morgue and said that all unidentified bodies would be buried on Thursday and Friday for fear of the spread of disease. The morgues are overflowing with corpses, there is fear that this devastating disaster will quickly morph into a public health emergency.

Aid workers are worried about this too. They say there is a high risk of disease outbreaks such as cholera as corpses lie out in the elements, exposed to the scorching heat.

Back at the site of the mudslide Sierra Leone Red Cross volunteers continue to dig frantically for survivors. They have dug from morning until night since it happened, with their bare hands or whatever they could find. When they're not digging they're comforting the families who have lost loved ones, many of whom are children.

"I have never seen anything like it," says Abdul Nasir, program coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent. "A river of mud came out of nowhere and swallowed entire communities just wiped them away. We are racing against time, more flooding and the risk of disease to help these affected communities survive and cope with their loss."

Of the 400 some bodies recovered around 105 are children. Little limbs are pulled from muddied rubble, and the bodies are buried in mass graves. 320 bodies were buried on Tuesday afternoon alone in two graves at a cemetery on the outskirts of Freetown.

These burials are bleak reminders of the country's past traumas. During the Ebola outbreak and the civil war mass burials were very common.

But the trauma continues for Sierra Leone as Red Cross officials estimate that at least another 600 people are still missing and over 3,000 have lost their homes. Both these numbers are expected to rise in the coming days.

President Ernest Bai Koroma has declared a state of emergency and pleaded for international assistance. Addressing media Koroma said that the devastation was "overwhelming us. Entire communities have been wiped out. We need urgent support now."

With rain forecast for at least the coming week the threat of further deadly mudslides around Freetown remain a dangerous reality for its residents.

"Our staff and volunteers, many of whom come from the affected areas, are shocked by the sheer destruction of this disaster," says Constant Kargbo, Sierra Leone Red Cross Secretary General. "The needs are massive. Damaged roads, power outages and broken communication lines present huge challenges for our volunteers to reach and support the affected communities."

The International Federation of the Red Cross has drawn on its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to help Sierra Leone These emergency funds will enable volunteers to assist more than 9,000 people with search and rescue, first aid, health care, water, sanitation and hygiene promotion and emergency food.