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Officials Still Searching For Bodies After Deadly Mudslides In Sierra Leone


After surviving a civil war and an Ebola outbreak, the West African country of Sierra Leone is now dealing with a new disaster. It's the rainy season. And on Monday, a torrential downpour caused a hillside on the outskirts of the capital city, Freetown, to collapse. The mudslide and flash floods overwhelmed the city's drainage system, and streets that run through the capital city were turned into rushing rivers. Homes and apartment buildings collapsed. Some 400 people are now confirmed dead, about a third of them children. And there is a fear that hundreds more are buried beneath the rubble. An estimated 3,000 people are homeless.

Joining me now is Abdulai Bayraytay, who is spokesman for the president of Sierra Leone and part of the president's team for responding to this calamity. Thanks for finding time to talk with us today, Mr. Bayraytay.

ABDULAI BAYRAYTAY: Thank you very much. And thank you for the opportunity.

SIEGEL: First, can you give us a sense of what you have witnessed this week and what you're dealing with at the moment?

BAYRAYTAY: Our country is just overwhelmed right now. You just gave me this opportunity of this interview whilst we are just coming from the gravesite, from the cemetery to commit the remains of our own brothers, sisters and children who lost their lives in this calamity which we've never witnessed in just one day. The country is in a state of mourning. People pile the streets crying, wailing. We are just overwhelmed.

SIEGEL: Can you tell us - first, is it still raining? And are you concerned that perhaps there could be new mudslides?

BAYRAYTAY: Well, that is a big concern here. That is adding to the trauma we are dealing with as a nation. There is no rain right now, but there is a chance of rain. We are holding our head in our hands.

SIEGEL: One explanation that I've seen for mudslides and flooding in Freetown is rampant unregulated construction that has deforested the hillsides and made the earth unstable. When Freetown rebuilds, what will be done to prevent something like this from happening again?

BAYRAYTAY: Well, the Environmental Protection Agency, over the years they have been reminding people that they should leave. The area is prone to disaster. Just two weeks ago, unfortunately, they identified buffer zones where they are going to plant some trees to recoup what was destroyed. And EPA personnel were chased out of the community, pelted with stones...

SIEGEL: If I understand you...

BAYRAYTAY: ...Basically until morning.

SIEGEL: Do I understand you to be saying that when environmental officials go to neighborhoods on the hillside urging people not to build and to plant trees, they've been chased away by the communities?

BAYRAYTAY: That is correct. They were pelted with stones. And we also have reports years back when one of the Ministry of Lands officials went to one of the protected areas, the community pounced on him. They gave him a beating and he was killed. But for us, though, we don't want to blame the community right now. They are mourning. They've lost loved ones. We have to be very empathetic with that as we continue to express our condolences.

SIEGEL: What does Sierra Leone need most from the outside world right now?

BAYRAYTAY: Well, we need medical supplies, particularly antibiotics. We needed shelter because we are dealing with a whole lot of homeless people right now, people that have evacuated from the disaster-prone areas. We need things also for the front-line walkers. We are just overstretched. You can just imagine the number of volunteers that came to get into the rubble to save lives. And they were not given a dime. So they are just overwhelmed, to say the least.

SIEGEL: That's Abdulai Bayraytay, who's spokesman for the president of Sierra Leone, speaking to us from Freetown. Mr. Bayraytay, thank you very much. Your country is in our thoughts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.