Sri Lanka flood misery forces over 200,000 to flee Colombo

500 desk, May 20:  Desperate Sri Lankans clambered onto rubber dinghies and makeshift rafts Friday to flee their homes in the flooded capital Colombo as fresh downpours elsewhere stalled rescue efforts at disaster zones.

The heaviest rains in a quarter of a century have pounded the island since last weekend, sparking huge landslides that have buried victims in up to 50 feet (15 metres) of mud.

Officials have urged those living in affected areas to leave immediately, with more than 60 people known to have died so far and fears that number could spike with many more reported missing.

Housewife Diluka Ishani said she, her husband and two children were marooned on high ground and were plucked to safety by a navy boat and brought to a nearby school.

“We started moving to higher ground as the water level went up and then we found we had no other place to go to,” Ishani said. “The navy saved our lives, but we lost all our belongings. Water went above our roof.”

Around 30 families were camped out at the school where the military were providing food and drinking water.

President Maithripala Sirisena urged citizens to help with caring for nearly half a million people affected by floods in many parts of the island.

“We have already got some assistance from our friends in the international community,” he said in a televised address.

“Now I want to ask private individuals, companies and non-governmental organisations to help in anyway you can to help the victims.”

His appeal came as Sri Lanka’s cricket team, who are on tour in England, announced a donation of one million rupees (around $7,000) for victims.

The players wore black bands at the start of the first Test on Thursday at Headlingley.

Sri Lankan media reports said India was sending two naval vessels with emergency relief supplies following Colombo’s initial appeal for foreign assistance to deal with the crisis.

The government announced the lifting of all taxes on relief supplies sent to the country by foreign donors.

Large parts of Colombo were evacuated overnight in an operation led by the military, involving boats and helicopters.

The national Disaster Management Centre said around 200,000 people had been moved from the low-lying capital which has a population of about 650,000.

Official figures showed nearly half a million people had been affected by the floods with most of them seeking shelter at state-run relief camps.

The worst-hit areas were in Colombo’s northeastern suburbs along the Kelani river, which began bursting its banks on Thursday evening.

Residents in the Kolonnawa district of the capital built jury-rigged rafts using plastic barrels to ferry marooned residents to high ground while the navy used rubber dinghies to help others to safety.

– Landslide carnage –

The Lion Brewery, which has the local licence to produce Carlsberg, said its factory in an industrial area on the edge of Colombo was under water.

There were sporadic showers in Colombo on Friday, with heavier downpours to the north of the capital that officials said would further swell the Kelani.

Three people have been killed in flood-related incidents in Colombo but the national toll now stands at 63.

The district of Kegalle, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Colombo, has been worst-hit, with the toll from two separate landslides rising to 34 after troops pulled another body from the mud overnight.

A police officer in the area said 144 people, including 37 children, had been reported missing since the landslides on Tuesday evening.

“We can’t definitely say if all these missing people were actually in their homes at the time of the disaster,” said the officer, who asked not to be named.

The officer said there was no realistic hope of finding any survivors in landslides that buried two villages in up to 50 feet of mud.

“This is turning into a recovery operation.”

The meteorological department has said the heavy rains have been caused by a depression in the Bay of Bengal, ahead of the arrival of the southwest monsoon.

Source: Agencies