Sierra Leone’s Flooding and Mudslide Disaster — My Story
On Aug. 14, Freetown was struck by a mudslide and flash flooding that cost the lives of nearly 500 people. It affected almost 6,000 people living primarily in five of the most hard-hit communities and left hundreds missing.
Growing up during the war in rural Sierra Leone, I saw terrible things. But what I saw the morning of Aug. 14 was the worst experience I have ever witnessed.
That day I woke up and heard a disturbing noise and the cries of neighbors, but I could not figure out what was going on. By the time I got myself up, the noise had intensified and I saw people in the rain dashing down the road. I was curious.
I got to the only bridge linking my community in Kaningo with other parts of the city, but it had disappeared. It had been washed away by heavy floods.
Youth were rescuing survivors and retrieving corpses trapped in the wreckage and under the mangroves. Then I discovered a new courage and joined the other men risking their lives in the floods to rescue survivors and recover bodies.
In response, the Sierra Leone Government activated emergency response systems that were established with support from donors like USAID after the recent Ebola outbreak.
This allowed the government to respond to the immediate needs of communities directly affected by the mudslide, including providing supplies such as food, medicine, water and clothes. They also gave refresher training for health care workers, and shared key messages that instruct communities how to prevent a cholera outbreak.
The response also focuses on mental health to help people traumatized by the disaster.
The national Mental Health Committee is in charge of dispatching field teams led by mental health nurses previously trained through USAID’s Advancing Partners & Communities project to give hospitals and residents — in particular mortuary workers, volunteers and burial teams in the affected communities — access to counseling and other services.
These nurses also provide follow-up mental health support at the main hospitals of Freetown. In the four days following the mudslide, more than 850 people were counseled.
In my role as communication officer for JSI Research & Training Institute, which implements the Advancing Partners project in Sierra Leone, I met with Frances Kemokai, one of the 19 mental health nurses who came to Freetown to assist with the response. She told me that when they initially arrived, the victims were very depressed.
“Some could not believe what had happened and so refused to accept the situation. Some were the only survivors in their families. Many refused to eat, isolated themselves from others or even engage in any activities; they were in a complete state of loneliness,” she said.
“As mental health nurses who have received training from JSI and its partners in psychological first aid, we were able to pick out victims who needed support the most. We listened to their stories and tried to stabilize their mental state by counselling them,” Frances explained.
Answering the Call
The DFID-supported Free Health Care Distribution Project works with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health & Sanitation to deliver essential medicines and medical products to “last mile” health facilities, and to collect, compile and share facility-level stock and storage condition information with the ministry and other stakeholders for decision making.
Immediately after the landslide, JSI staffers held their own fundraiser and helped make emergency deliveries of much needed medical supplies to one area hospital and six smaller health units caring for flood victims.
The health ministry is also engaging community health workers to provide support in reaching the affected population — a lesson learned during the Ebola outbreak response.
Health workers trained by USAID have played an active role providing care and support to survivors, including outreach to help prevent water borne diseases like cholera.
I am grateful for the support USAID is giving to our communities in Sierra Leone to cope with the aftermath of this emergency. The work to rebuild the health system post-Ebola has clearly been effective, as it withstands this latest tragedy to befall my country.
I know that my family and I may have been spared from this tragic human catastrophe, but the memories of things I saw on Aug. 14 will haunt my life for years to come.
To learn more about the USAID interventions in Sierra Leone, please visit the Advancing Partners & Communities website.