Wednesday, 29 October 2014

300 feared missing as mudslides hit Sri Lanka tea region

KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka: Mudslides triggered by monsoon rains swept through a tea-growing region of Sri Lanka on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people and leaving about 300 more feared missing, disaster officials said.

One witness spoke of hearing a noise like thunder as part of a mountainside collapsed onto a tea plantation, burying some of the estate workers' homes in 30 feet (nine metres) of mud and debris.

Hundreds of soldiers, who initially used their hands to dig for survivors, had switched to operating excavators by evening but hopes had faded of finding anyone else still alive.

"Anyone buried under the mud has a very slim chance of surviving," Disaster Management Center spokesman Sarath Kumara told AFP.

Kumara said 16 bodies have so far been recovered from the disaster in the area of Koslanda, around 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the capital.

"We have reports of 140 houses getting washed away in the mudslides," Kumara said.

"The latest we have got is that at least 300 people may be missing," the official said.

Part of a mountain appeared to have collapsed onto the cluster of homes belonging to the tea plantation workers and their families further below, leaving no trace of them, an AFP photographer said.

Shopkeeper Kandasamy Prabhakaran, 34, said he heard a noise like thunder and then saw houses being washed away by tonnes of mud.

"Right before my eyes I could see houses crumbling and getting washed downhill," Prabhakaran said.

"It all happened very quickly." President Mahinda Rajapakse ordered troops to deploy heavy equipment to speed up the rescue efforts, his office said.

Military sources said they expected more heavy machinery to reach the site, but damage to roads as well as heavy rain and mist were slowing them down.

The top military official in the area, Major General Mano Perera, said around 230 soldiers, were initially deployed to the unstable mountainous area.

Three hundred more troops were later sent, the army said in a statement, while police commandos as well as airforce units were also deployed.

The landslide began at about 7.45 am (0215 GMT) and lasted about 10 minutes, Perera said, adding "some houses have been buried in 30 feet of mud."

Authorities have begun checking on the number of people who were in their homes when tragedy struck.

"We have asked local officials to check with schools and workplaces to arrive at a clearer picture of the numbers," said Kumara, the disaster center spokesman.

"For the moment, we are maintaining the missing figure at 300." A local official said at least 75 students had been at school when the mudslide destroyed their homes.

The main focus of the search is the Meeriyabedda tea plantation, which lies close to several waterfalls.

Kumara said the mudslide struck after schools opened and tea plantation workers were supposed to be at work, but bad weather may have prompted some to stay home.

A local hospital source said two men and a woman rescued from the mud had been brought in for treatment.

Sections of several national highways have been washed away by the rains, slowing down the movement of search and rescue vehicles to the area. A locomotive was stuck after a mountain slope crashed onto a railway line.

The area is prone to mudslides and residents had been repeatedly warned to move to safer areas as monsoon rains lashed the region, the Disaster Management Center said.

The annual monsoon brings vital rains for irrigation and electricity generation but also causes frequent loss of life and damage to property.

Thirteen people were killed in mudslides in and around Colombo in June. Cyclonic winds that accompanied the monsoon in June last year killed 54 people, mostly fishermen.