by Staff Writers
Colombo (AFP) May 22, 2016
Sri Lankan soldiers pulled more bodies from landslides and distributed food and water Sunday to hundreds of thousands forced into shelters after major floods hit the island.
Floodwaters were receding in the capital Colombo after the heaviest rains in 25 years pounded the country since last weekend, triggering landslides that have buried victims in tonnes of mud.
Soldiers and other rescuers have discovered remains of 23 people in the last 24 hours in the worst-hit district of Kegalle, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Colombo, where two villages were destroyed last week.
Ninety-two people are known to have died across the island amid fears the number could rise, with 109 people still listed as missing, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said in its latest update.
"The search will continue for some more time even though we have not found anyone alive during these search operations," DMC spokesman Pradeep Kodippili said of the landslides where 57 bodies in total have been found.
Sri Lanka was receiving international aid for more than half a million people forced to flee their homes across the island.
President Maithripala Sirisena visited centres in Colombo on Sunday where more than 200,000 people from low-lying parts of the capital were still staying in temporary shelters, his office said.
However, the DMC figures showed that about half of them had left temporary shelters by Sunday night as water levels dropped in many north-eastern neighbourhoods of the capital.
Earlier in the day, soldiers and relief workers handed out essential supplies in shelters after the rain-swollen Kelani river, which runs through Colombo, burst its banks last week.
Floodwaters from the Kelani were contaminated with garbage from a dump on the edge of Colombo as well as raw sewage, raising concerns of a disease outbreak, officials said.
"There is a real danger of diarrhoea and skin diseases spreading among the flood victims," Colombo Municipal Council medical chief Ruwan Wijayamuni told reporters.
Doctors were being deployed to the shelters and mobile medical units set up, he said, adding that a massive clean-up operation was the next big challenge for residents and authorities.
Sirisena appealed to Sri Lankans to help flood victims, prompting a massive donation of food and other supplies, disaster officials said.
Rain has eased since Cyclone Roanu moved away from Sri Lanka to hit southern Bangladesh on Saturday, leaving at least 24 people dead there, before weakening.
Foreign aid reaches flooded Sri Lankan capital, 71 dead
As the heaviest rains in a quarter of a century battered Sri Lanka, Cyclone Roanu barrelled into the Bangladesh coastline leaving six people dead and forcing the evacuation of 500,000 there.
It unleashed winds as strong as 88 kilometres (54 miles) an hour and heavy downpours in Bangladesh after moving away from Sri Lanka's north-eastern coast.
However, the authorities said effects of the cyclone could still bring more rain to Sri Lanka where flood levels were slowly receding.
"I stayed back on the first floor of a neighbour's flat after my house went underwater," said Sri Lankan tea factory worker Kumarage Jayamini, 62, at a welfare centre in a Colombo suburb.
"The police and the navy persuaded me to leave and they brought me in their boat," she told AFP. "I am glad I came because otherwise I would have been without food or water."
Torrential rains have deluged Sri Lanka since last weekend, triggering huge landslides that have buried victims in up to 15 metres (50 feet) of mud and left 127 people missing.
As aid began to arrive Saturday on a military plane from India and a commercial flight from Japan, Sri Lankan authorities said their priority was now preventing diseases such as diarrhoea, with many areas still under water.
"We have sent a large number of doctors and nursing staff to ensure there is no outbreak of waterborne diseases," Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told AFP.
Irrigation director Prema Hettiarachchi said only the main Kelani river which falls to the Indian Ocean through Colombo was still at flood level, but that too should go down within about three days.
"If there is no major downpour in the next three days, the flood situation will ease," she said.
Residents clung to ropes as they battled to cross torrents of water pulsing through the streets of the flooded capital on Saturday with some forced to take shelter in rickshaws.
The Indian government has provided inflatable boats, outboard motors, diving equipment, medical supplies, electricity generators and sleeping bags, officials said.
Two Indian naval ships arrived Saturday at the port in Colombo, while Australia and the United States have made cash donations to help victims.
- Buddhist holiday -
Nearly 300,000 people were staying in about 500 state-run relief centres Saturday, which also marks the Buddhist holiday of Vesak, while a further 200,000 people were staying with friends or family.
Officials said there was a fresh landslide in the worst-hit central district of Kegalle, but that no casualties were reported because the area had been evacuated.
The country's influential Buddhist clergy urged the faithful to divert at least half of the money spent on holiday celebrations to help flood victims.
"There are lots of people who have lost their homes, some have only the clothes they are wearing," top Buddhist monk Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana said.
"Consider this your meritorious deed to celebrate Vesak."
Vesak celebrations were muted Saturday in Colombo compared with previous years when the entire city was decorated with lanterns and coloured lights.
President Maithripala Sirisena marked Vesak by granting an amnesty and freeing more than 600 prisoners who had been convicted on minor offences, his office said.
He also called on Sri Lankans to provide shelter and donate cash or food to flood victims as offers of assistance came in from overseas.
The accommodation booking website airbnb.com listed at least 29 places offering free lodging for anyone affected by the floods in Sri Lanka.
Disaster management officials said there had been a huge outpouring of sympathy for victims with donations of food, clothing and dry rations.
Around 22 of Sri Lanka's 25 districts have been affected by the rains, according to disaster officials.
Almost a third of residents have been moved from the low-lying capital, which has a population of about 650,000.
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