It is nearly ten years now since I was getting anxious phone calls and messages from people worried about what had happened to us when a huge tidal wave hit Sri Lanka on St Stephen’s Day 2004. I am touched once again by enquiries from people all over the world as they follow the news of the terrible events in Haldummulla. After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta around 7.30 a.m. with a deafening noise devastating an area of about 20 acres where 317 people had lived mostly in collections of line houses that is the normal accommodation for workers on tea estates. Badulla District Secretary Rohana Keerthi Dissanayake said that the slide destroyed about 60 line rooms, two houses and a kovil (Hindu temple).
I am not reporting from the site of the disaster but I have gathered information and images from various sources. As I write, the situation is still confused with varying numbers of casualties being given in the Sri Lankan media. The UNP-led Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union General Secretary K Velayutham told Ceylon Today that “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”. The Island newspaper reports that 150 have been buried alive.
A joint rescue operation is underway with the army, police, air force and the district administration participating with all their resources in search of survivors. Security Forces Commander of the Central Province Major General Mano Perera said five bodies were recovered on October 29. The operations were hampered by continuing 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. Army Media Director Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said, initially 200 Army personnel were rushed to the scene within 45 minutes of the disaster. “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.
Two camps were set up at Ampitikanda and Koslanda to provide shelter to people living in vulnerably areas close to the Meeriyabedda estate and some 100 people are being sheltered there at present.
A contingent of more than 500 army soldiers have been conducting rescue operations with the help of other agencies and moved sections of displaced people into two common halls in Koslanda, army said.
They said the Army was busy preparing meals and other requirements of those affected at present.
Air force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said a BEL 212 helicopter was on standby in Nuwara Eliya because the adverse weather had made it impossible to get to Badulla.
Wing Commander Seneviratne said a M17 helicopter was also on standby at the Ratmalana domestic airport for any emergency.
There is a vivid video here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/emergency/55355
Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them and there were two other mountains nearby prone to landslides. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had the years not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. The Ministers said that a programme should be established to prevent such a tragedy from recurring and said that the government was preparing a national nation pinpointing areas prone to landslides.
Haldummulla is in the Badulla District of Uva Province. We also live in the Badulla district but our house is about two hours drive from Haldummulla. We pass through the town on our way to Colombo. Even when we first took the trip twelve years ago, Haldummulla knew about tragedy. There was a house that we passed on the way, which had been destroyed by a rockslide in which all the inhabitants had perished.
On a more recent journey, in August, we noticed that the roads were littered with asbestos roofing sheets. These are very heavy and it would take a mighty wind to take them off a house and transport them many yards and break them on the road. We usually stop to buy fruit from a woman in the area. She was very distressed because the cyclone had destroyed her house and her business. Luckily, there was no injury to her or her husband or children. She became even more emotional when we gave her some money to repair her property.
In our immediate vicinity, there was a lengthy drought, which meant that people in the village had to queue up to collect their water from a government water bowser. For some time now we have been suffering from torrential rain every day. The irony now is that people are still without water despite the immoderate amounts coming from the sky. The very force of the rain is causing landslides and breaking channels and pipes that normally take water into homes. The embankment at the bottom of our garden collapsed and is blocking the drainage of our neighbours below. We immediately hired someone to fix this but work cannot start work until the rain stops- which it shows no sign of doing.
Our house is in the middle of a tea estate. We have often commented that the plantation company is risking erosion through the way estate workers cut and weed on the slopes. They are destroying the root systems that hold the soil together. Even without abnormal weather conditions there are often landslips along the main roads. Access to our home from the main A5 road between Badulla and Passara has always difficult because about a quarter of a kilometre of estate road has not been maintained. That road is now a river.
Our situation is not nearly as bad as those poor people in Haldummulla are suffering but if the rain does not stop, it could well become as bad. A level-2 warning has been issued asking the public to be alert to the possibility of landslides, rock falls and cut slope failures. The level-2 warning covered Badulla, Bandarawela, Ella divisional secretariat divisions and Ella-Wellawaya Road, Haputale- Beragala Road, Beragala-Wellawaya Road, Badulla-Spring Valley Road, Passara-Lunugala Road and Etampitiya-Welimada Road. We are on the Badulla-Passara road. The Railway Department said that the train service on the Badulla-Colombo track had come to a standstill after a massive mound of earth had fallen on a locomotive and the track between Ella and Demodara on Tuesday night.
Here are some pictures of conditions in and around our garden. It is not nearly as horrific as Haldumulla but there is still cause for concern. Duty Meteorologist Nadee Rupasinghe said that over 100 mm of heavy rains could be expected countrywide until November 1. “There may be temporary localized strong winds during thundershowers. General public is kindly requested to take adequate precautions to minimize any damages caused by lightning activities.” Strong winds are not unusual but one can never get used to them.
These are pictures I took in the last few days of the road we have to drive down to get food, cash and alcohol.