Hundreds still missing from Sri Lanka floods
COLOMBO, May 21 (Reuters) - Rescue workers picked through devastated villages on Wednesday looking for survivors after Sri Lanka's worst flooding in half a century killed more than 250 people and left hundreds more missing.
Government and military officials also fanned out over the worst-hit areas in the south of the country to gauge damage to homes and tea and rubber plantations.
"The death toll so far is 256," said Karu Jayasuriya, head the government's disaster management team.
He told a news conference that nearly 200,000 families had lost their homes and that another 500 people were missing.
Jayasuriya, the island's energy minister, said disease was a major concern as the water recedes in some areas.
He said health offices were being reinforced but added there had been "difficulty in distributing relief to some cut-off areas" after the flooding that started four days ago when the south of the island was battered by torrential rain.
The worst-hit area was Ratnapura, a gemstone centre about 100 km (60 miles) southeast of Colombo, where 125 people were killed as water rose to roof levels in some villages and mud slides buried others.
Sri Lankan air force helicopters dropped food for marooned people, using a cricket field as a take-off base.
"The navy and army are also involved, although water levels are starting to fall," said military spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne.
The government-run Daily News said aid was being collected in areas controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting a separatist war against the Sinhalese-dominated south for 20 years. A ceasefire has been holding since early last year.
Jayasuriya said losses from the flooding would run into the billions of rupees (tens of millions of dollars).
At least five tea factories were damaged, but brokers said the crop, the island's biggest export after textiles, was likely to be safe.
The Meteorology Department said the threat of heavy rain was easing, but the monsoon season could continue into next month.
The flooding came at the end of the Buddhist Vesak, the island's biggest holiday of the year that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets and into temples.