Facing the threat of disease, Sierra Leone on Wednesday began burying hundreds of victims of a mudslide that swept away homes on the edge of the capital, one of Africa’s worst flood disasters in living memory.
Hundreds of Freetown residents queued to identify relatives crushed by the mud on Monday in a valley on the outskirts of Freetown. Aid workers warned of an impending health crisis caused by about 400 corpses left out in the warm, fetid climate.
Freetown chief coroner Seneh Dumbuya told Reuters the burial of 297 of the bodies was underway. They were being transported to the Ebola cemetery at Waterloo, about 20 miles (30 km) outside of Freetown, Dumbuya said.
“We cannot wait for tomorrow for the burial, as was suggested by government, because most of the bodies are decomposing,” he said. “The burial will continue up till night.”
Dozens of houses were buried when a mountainside collapsed in the rainy season in the town of Regent.
The country of 6 million people is one of the poorest in the world and was ravaged by West Africa’s 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, which killed 4,000 people in the former British colony.
Emergency response teams have raced to dig out survivors and dispose of bodies but the central morgue is overwhelmed and many bodies are feared trapped under mud and rubble.
Sobbing and covering their noses from the stench, relatives stepped around corpses lying on the ground outside the morgue as the sheets covering them were lifted.
“I came to identify my uncle in particular, but I couldn’t find him,” said 30-year-old Hawanatu Sesay, after her turn came to look through the morgue. “Let his soul rest in peace,” she said through tears.
Another man said he had identified his wife’s body but had no news of his two young daughters. All had been buried when their house was engulfed in mud, he said.
Chief coroner Seneh Dumbuya told Reuters on Tuesday that nearly 400 bodies had been brought in and that he anticipated more than 500 as the search continued. Authorities did not have an updated death toll on Wednesday.
The government summoned families to the morgue in a statement and said all unidentified corpses would be buried on Thursday and Friday.
Aid workers said there was a high risk of disease outbreaks such as cholera, as corpses are lying in the open in the heat.
Authorities have requested air conditioning units to keep the bodies cool and are in need of more protective gear such as masks, aprons and glove disposal stations, said Idalia Amaya, an emergency relief coordinator for Catholic Relief Services.
“The morgues are just overflowing with corpses and it is becoming a public health emergency,” Amaya said. “They need to get the bodies out.”