Nearly 400 bodies have been found so far after “huge” mudslides hit the capital of Sierra Leone – and more heavy rain is feared to be on the way.
Relatives have been gathering at a morgue overloaded with bodies in Freetown and national TV showed images of people bringing bodies to the morgue in rice sacks.
The chief coroner, Seneh Dumbuya, said he expected the death toll would rise to more than 500.
Rescuers are still trying to find people buried under tons of mud when a hillside collapsed after storms lashed the West African country on Monday.
Sky News’ Rebecca Williams, in Freetown, said some people were “digging with their bare hands” to try to find signs of life.
“The biggest worry is the forecast is not looking good,” said Williams. “They’re worried there will be more storms tonight – very thick thunder clouds overhead.”
Zynab Kamara from charity ActionAid said it was the most tragic thing she had seen in a decade of working in emergency relief.
“I saw children clambering over the rubble and mud, desperately calling for their parents. So many people were trapped, trying to reach their loved ones.”
Ms Kamara, who grew up in Sierra Leone, said the mudslide in the mountain town of Regent was “huge in scale” and buried “everything in its path, destroying homes from five storey buildings to corrugated iron shacks”.
The Government is working with Sierra Leone to coordinate rescue efforts, said International Development Secretary Priti Patel.
A mass burial was expected to take place on Tuesday to free up more space in the overwhelmed central mortuary.
President Ernest Bai Koroma asked residents of Regent and other flooded areas in Freetown to leave their homes so military personnel and other rescue workers could search for survivors.
Up to 3,000 people are also said to be without shelter after floodwaters smashed through their homes – with many people hearing the mudslides approaching but unable to escape in time.
Aid agencies said thousands in the capital may also not have access to safe drinking water.
ActionAid’s Humanitarian Director, Richard Miller, said: “While search and rescue is still ongoing, there are currently over 1,500 people reported missing – and this number is expected to rise.
“Our local aid workers in Sierra Leone are telling us that they are especially concerned for the welfare and safety of girls and women, who are the most vulnerable at this time.
International Development Secretary Priti Patel said: “We have pre-positioned vital aid supplies and helped prepare the country’s response to disasters.
“We are already working with the Government of Sierra Leone to coordinate the rescue efforts and are ready to provide further assistance to those in need.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life” and that Britain is “working with the Government of Sierra Leone to provide support where necessary”.