Partners In Health’s top official in Sierra Leone described “staggering” losses Tuesday among PIH family and friends in Freetown, where rescue work was ongoing after devastating floods and mudslides killed hundreds a day earlier.
Just before dawn Monday, while most of the city slept or prepared for work, uncommonly heavy rainfall caused hillsides to give way in southern neighborhoods of Freetown, the nation’s capital. Mud roared down unstable slopes, killed at least 300 people, and left at least 1,000 homeless. Rescuers were continuing to search through debris into Tuesday evening.
Numerous family members of PIH staff are among the dead.
“There have been staggering losses among some of our staff members,” said Jon Lascher, executive director at PIH Sierra Leone.
One PIH employee lost eight members of his family, Lascher said. Another lost five. A third lost his sister.
“And the list goes on,” Lascher said in a Skype conversation Tuesday.
His comments reflect the massive tragedy in Freetown, where many residents lost entire families and homes. Reuters called the mudslides one of the deadliest natural disasters in Africa in recent years.
Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health, army, and more were leading the response from a downtown command center, using logistics and communications systems originally set up for the Ebola epidemic. Lascher and Sierra Leone native Dr. Bailor Barrie, medical director at PIH’s Wellbody Clinic, were involved and assessing how PIH could help.
They said the response’s first priority was managing the overwhelming number of bodies arriving at morgues. Finding shelter for people who lost their homes also was a high priority. Lascher said many of the displaced were camped at National Stadium, a roofless soccer stadium.
PIH has also been focused on taking care of its staff.
“We spent much of yesterday trying to provide support to those we know who lost family members and homes,” Lascher said. “Early today, I went to visit one of our staff members whose house was destroyed and what I noticed in the mud were pots and pans and clothes and stuffed animals—everything that people owned, washed away.”
While the larger response takes shape, PIH also is helping arrange funerals and counselling.
“I think the next few days, as more people are recovered, is going to be a difficult time,” Lascher said. “You hear sirens from ambulances passing much more frequently than normal, and you know those ambulances are unlikely to be carrying the sick.”