Heavy rains are hampering rescue efforts and hopes are fading for the possibility of finding survivors among the 130 missing in the Sri Lankan region hit by landslides that have left 58 people dead.
About 220 families are reported missing, the Sri Lankan Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s landslides wiped out at least three villages in the central hills of Aranayaka following torrential rains that have affected up to 350,000 people, according to the country’s Disaster Management Centre.
“I don’t think there will be any survivors,” Major-General Sudantha Ranasinghe, the officer in charge of the rescue operation, told Reuters news agency.
“There are places where the mud level is up to 30 feet. We will do our best. We will keep going until we can recover the maximum.”
Jayanath Jayaweera, military spokesperson, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that 220,000 people had been displaced and 6,300 remained cut off as heavy rains continued to drench Aranayaka.
He said the army had so far rescued 156 people trapped by landslides and more than 1,550 people were being sheltered at seven different sites.
Mudslides are common in Sri Lanka during the monsoon season, with heavy deforestation to clear land for agriculture leaving the countryside exposed.
Torrents of muddy water
Villagers recalled hearing and seeing the torrents of muddy water, tree branches, and debris crashing down around their homes late on Tuesday.
“I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the earth,” AG Kamala, 52, who had just returned to her house in Siripura when the landslides hit the area, told the Associated Press news agency.
“I opened my door: I could not believe my eyes as I saw something like a huge fireball rolling down the mountain – and again a huge sound.”
The Sri Lankan army said in a statement that it was working to relocate the displaced to temporary shelters, including temples and schools, and also providing meals and water for them.
Officials could not provide exact figures on the village populations, but each typically includes 1,000-1,500 residents.
A government official who is part of the rescue efforts told Al Jazeera on Wednesday from Kegalle district, about 72km from Colombo, that one village, Siripura, was buried 12 metres under the mud.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Rikaz Hussain, the government official, said: “It’s absolutely mind-boggling what sort of disaster this has turned out to be.
“It seems like someone cut off a mountain and planted it on top of the village. There are absolutely no signs of a village ever existing here. There’s no sign of Siripura. The rescue efforts here are futile.
“Some of the roads are also inundated, so we can’t even get through to those affected. Some places are not even accessible by helicopter.”
Officials gave warning that more landslides and lightning strikes could occur in the countryside, as more rain was forecast in addition to rough seas along the coasts.