As soldiers searched Thursday for hundreds of people missing after landslides swallowed three central Sri Lankan villages, family members huddled in crowded shelters waiting for news about the fate of loved ones.
Their wait was likely to be long. Heavy rain halted the search several times during the day, and new thunderous mudslides caused already-frightened villagers to run from the shelters.
Authorities warned that conditions were still dangerous and more mudslides were possible.
Two days after the three villages of Siripura, Elangapitiya and Pallebage were hit by torrents of thick, red mud, rescuers had recovered just 18 bodies out of hundreds believed missing. The Sri Lankan Red Cross said at least 220 families were unaccounted for.
Heavy fog, electrical outages and the loose ground complicated the search in Kegalle district, about 72 kilometers (45 miles) north of Colombo.
"We will continue the search tomorrow, but we have to study the situation" to make sure it\’s safe, said army Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe, who was coordinating search efforts.
Asked whether rescuers expected to find survivors, Ranasinghe pointed to an area where 66 houses once stood.
"All gone with that landslide," he said. "So I have my doubts."
Soldiers carried bodies to a school where families waited for news of missing loved ones. The school entrance was decorated with white flags, a symbol of mourning.
Most of the bodies recovered were in Elangapitiya, the village farthest down the hill, as conditions prevented search efforts higher up.
Like much of Sri Lanka, the area around the villages had been cleared for agriculture and tea plantations, leaving the countryside exposed.
More than 1,550 people were crowded into nine shelters, where they were being given food, blankets and basic medical treatment, officials said.
"The destruction is so bad," tea farmer A. Dharmasena said as he huddled in the Viyaneliya Buddhist Temple with hundreds of other evacuees. "You can\’t bring the village back to what it was before."
The downpours that started Sunday continued to lash all of Sri Lanka, causing severe flooding in cities including Colombo and unleashing smaller mudslides elsewhere in the country.
The government called it the worst natural disaster in more than two decades. Since Monday, 43 people have died from lightning strikes, floods, falling trees and landslides nationwide, including the 18 confirmed deaths in the Kegalle district, according to the Disaster Management Center.
Tens of thousands have been evacuated from homes across the island to some 594 shelters.
The government ordered all schools to close Friday, with more rain predicted. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said there was an urgent need for water purification tablets, water pumps and drinking water.
Many parts of Colombo and its suburbs were inundated, with floodwaters reaching rooftops in some areas.
"Everything is gone," said Mohomed Sabri, who was able to grab his children\’s birth certificates and his passport before his home in the Kolonnawa suburb of Colombo disappeared under 3 meters (9 feet) of water.
"This … is unbelievable. All my savings, my valuables, have gone with the water."
SOURCE: Associated Press