Sierra Leone mudslides: At least 300 dead, upwards of 600 missing as rescuers 'racing against time'

Rescuers desperately searched Tuesday for survivors on the outskirts of Sierra Leone's capital for survivors that might be buried underneath debris, after massive mudslides killed at least 300 people. The Red Cross estimated that 600 people were still missing.

Government spokesman Cornelius Deveaux said rescue operations began early Tuesday, with heavy equipment deployed to dig into the piles of red mud around Freetown, the Associated Press reported.

Deveaux said definitive death figures were unknown "as the mortuary is overwhelmed with corpses — men, women and children."

Many bodies were in a horrible state, missing arms, heads or legs, Deveaux said, adding that proper burials will be vital in keeping disease at bay. "Contingency plans are being put in place to mitigate the outbreak of disease like cholera," he told a local radio station, FM 98.1.

Heavy rains Monday around the capital sent tons of mud into residental areas, trapping people as they slept. 

The Connaught Hospital mortuary in central Freetown was overwhelmed on Tuesday with more than 300 bodies, many spread on the floor.

"The magnitude of the destruction as a result of the disaster is such that the number of victims in the community who may not come out alive may likely exceed the number of dead bodies already recovered," said Charles Mambu, a civil society activist and resident of one affected area, Mount Sugar Loaf.

Mambu added that "two bodies were brought out alive from the debris last evening."

Sierra Red Cross Society spokesman Abu Bakarr Tarawallie told Reuters he estimated that at least 3,000 people were homeless and in need of shelter, medical assistance and food. 

"We are also fearful of outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid," he said. "We can only hope that this does not happen."

Some rescue workers and volunteers dug overnight through the mud and debris with their bare hands in a desperate search for missing relatives. Military personnel have been deployed to help with the operation in the impoverished West African nation.

"I have never seen anything like it," said Abdul Nasir, program coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "A river of mud came out of nowhere and swallowed entire communities, just wiped them away. We are racing against time, more flooding and the risk of disease to help these affected communities survive and cope with their loss."

The Sierra Leone National Broadcasting Corp. showed people carrying the dead to the morgue in rice sacks.

Many of the impoverished areas of Sierra Leone's capital are close to sea level and have poor drainage systems, exacerbating flooding during the rainy season. Freetown also is plagued by unregulated building of large residential houses in hilltop areas.

Thousands of makeshift settlements in and around the capital were severely affected.

"The government has been warning people not to construct houses in these areas. When they do this, there are risks," Nasir said. "People don't follow the standard construction rules, and that is another reason that many of these houses have been affected."

Deforestation for firewood and charcoal is one of the leading factors of worsening flooding and mudslides.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.