By Mirudhula Thambiah and Menaka Indrakumar
More than 350 persons went missing and six bodies were found, following a massive landslide, at the Koslanda Estate in the Meeriyabadda area of Haldummulla in the Badulla District, yesterday morning.
The landslide occurred at around 7:30 in the morning burying more than 150 line room housing units, according to the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) Spokesman, Pradeep Kodippili.
“Line houses from No.7 -12 collapsed, including three houses of estate supervisors.
Two Hindu temples, two garages, four grocery shops, a house of an estate midwife, the estate ward and two government office buildings were completely damaged and buried underneath the mud,” he said.
He added that two teams from Colombo were sent to the crisis hit area, and a team from Moneragala District was already there performing rescue operations.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had in the meantime ordered that measures be taken to assist those in distress.
Minister Arumugam Thondaman had visited the scene in the morning and ordered relief be given to the victims, according to his secretary.
However, according to estate sources, school children from the area had left for school when the incident occurred, therefore some had escaped the earth slip.
He added that even though this was a sudden landslide, National Building Research Organization (NBRO) had continuously been issuing warnings during the past three to four days. They also informed the people to evacuate to safer ground due to landslide threats.
However, NBRO Badulla District Geologist, Kelum Senevirate told Ceylon Today that in 2011 Haldummulla was identified as a landslide prone area and the estate people were warned to evacuate the place, yet they refused to go.
He further said that more than 300 people were living in the Meeriyabedda- Haldummulla area. “We issued an early warning to the area yesterday and informed the Divisional Secretariat to immediately evacuate the people,” he said.
The Police Media Unit said the rescue operation was conducted by a team of policemen. The police suspect that there may be more civilians buried underneath and search operations are underway.
The tri-forces were involved in rescue operations at the scene. Also, a team of doctors, nurses and several ambulances were organized at the Badulla and Bandarawela hospitals to treat the affected persons.
Army Media Director Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said, initially 200 Army personnel were rushed to the scene within 45 minutes of the disaster striking the area. “There were 500 Army personnel; including 50 Air Force personnel assisting the government officials, who are inspecting the scene to build temporary shelter for the affected persons as their houses were completely destroyed.
He added that the Army will extend its support to the people and other officials assisting the injured and displaced persons.
“Due to the inclement weather conditions, the search operations were hampered; rains in between were a hindrance as well. The area is a pool of mud, and is unapproachable. The troops together with officials are working tirelessly to rescue those that have been buried underneath, from yesterday morning”
When speaking to Ceylon Today, the UNP-led Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union General Secretary K. Velayutham said that many have gone missing and many are feared to be dead due to the earth slip.
“According to my sources some 440 people have been buried underneath the earth slip. Children who went to school and some families who left the place and evacuated to other areas escaped,” he said.
He said a warning was issued ten years ago by the NBRO that the Koslanda Estate is prone to earthslips and the estate plantation management was held responsible to evacuate the people from the area.
“Even the Haldummulla Divisional Secretary also has the responsibility to make necessary arrangements to remove the estate villagers from the dangerous area, but they have not done their job. Their failure has caused many to suffer,” he said. Meanwhile, some 288 had been displaced and sheltered at the Haldummulla Tamil Maha Vidyalaya. The area has experienced more than 100 mm of rain fall.
According to estate sources, the children who went to school in the morning are unable to return home and they are remaining at the Haldummulla Tamil Maha Vidyalaya.
A source said the weather conditions are terrible but despite that operations are continuing and the process is slow. Doctors and nurses are at standby on mountain tops. Injured persons were rushed to nearby temporary medical clinics.
Velayutham said that some 75 school children are being sheltered in the Koslanda Tamil Maha Vidyalaya as they are unable to go home.
Cabinet Ministers W.D.J. Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said, they would particularly look into the plantation company that had over the years not heeded several warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area.
The Ministers also said that a programme should be established to prevent such a tragedy from recurring. They added that the government was presently drawing up a map of the nation pinpointing areas prone to landslides.
They further said that a warning was issued to the people in the neighbouring estates to evacuate and some of the affected are being sheltered in the Poonagala Tamil Maha Vidayalaya.
“I feel that the death toll will rise to 150-200. Out of the 500 people in the estates, 300 people have gone missing,” he said.
He added that Poonagala Estate roads have also been blocked due to the inclement weather pattern. Therefore, to avoid future calamities, people from nearby estates have also been advised to leave the estates through the Ambeligala Estate routes as they cannot use the Koslanda Estate roads.
The NBRO yesterday (29) issued landslide warnings for Bandarawela, Ella, Passara, Uvaparanagama, Haldummulla, Haputale and Haliela in the Badulla District.
Security Forces Commander of the Central Province Major General Mano Perera said five bodies were recovered yesterday and search operations will continue tomorrow (30). The operations were hampered due to heavy rain.
“In one line there were 100-120 houses housing about 50-65 families. It’s believed that 100 -160 corpses will be recovered in the coming days,” he said.
He added that two schools are housing displaced persons: Shri Ganesha Tamil Vidyalaya in Meeriyabedda is sheltering 382 persons while the First Tamil School has 62 persons, including children.
People in the surrounding areas are being evacuated as there is risk of landslides occuring in the days to come.
Uva Province Chief Minister Sashindra Rajapaksa and the Hadumulla Divisional Secretary were not available for comment.