friday’s Meethotamulla calamity

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By 2017-04-16

By Shaahidah Riza

A young girl, aged not more than 20, remains sprawled on the road, sobbing, amidst the chaos that surrounds her in Meethotamulla, Kollonnawa. She was visiting her aunt, with her family, on the Sinhala and Tamil New Year's Day. At about 3.20 p.m. whilst partaking in Avurudu crumpets and tea with the family, she heard a loud noise, felt a thump on her head and then was surrounded by darkness.

That was the inception of Friday's tragedy when part of the 1,125 tonne Meethotamulla Garbage Mountain collapsed, burying more than 150 houses in the vicinity under debris and garbage. Several families who were trapped in their houses were believed to be dead. The young girl was rescued by the military troops, and managed to escape unscathed, save the bump on her head.

She had not seen her aunt or her parents since 3.20 p.m., they too, are believed to be dead. The area where her aunt's house stood, now resembles a waste site, covered in brick and cement debris.

A few feet away, another woman screams in agony. Her husband and three daughters were buried under the debris. Their bodies were recovered during the early hours of yesterday.

The 91-metre-high rubbish dump in Meethotamulla collapsed on Friday, it was a tragedy waiting to happen.The police and the tri-forces were deployed to contain the situation, which was worsening by the hour. According to relief workers on site, the authorities had previously dug massive ditches; hence the impact of the collapse was contained marginally. The people in the area, who were severely agitated, blamed the politicians and had set two backhoes on fire. This aggravated the situation when fire broke out at its top, the mountain of garbage rose up in flames thereby triggering another landslide that swamped the homes below.The toxic smoke caused by the flames engulfed the area causing respiratory problems to those living in the vicinity. On Friday more than 15 people were hospitalised. More than 600 troops were deployed for relief work, and the Air Force had deployed a Bell 212 helicopter with Bambi bucket to douse the fire which erupted at the garbage dump.

When Ceylon Today visited Meethotamulla yesterday, the rescue operations were ongoing and several residents in the area were anxious to find out about their loved ones, who were believed to be buried beneath the colossal heap of debris. At about 10.22 a.m., yesterday, two more bodies were recovered from the wreckage. Rahula Vidyalaya was established as the media centre, and those who had lost their properties were requested to report there.

Commenting on the situation, the Deputy Director of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), Pradeep Kodippili, said that the death toll had risen to 17. However, according to Ceylon Today's sources on site the death toll was 24. Kodippili further added that a clear estimate of the missing persons cannot be ascertained as the situation was still chaotic. 12 people were injured. He further noted that the rescue operations had intensified to unearth debris in order to recover more bodies. At 5 p.m. yesterday, according to Kodippili, the number of displaced were 74, and they were temporarily housed in a nearby school. He added, "They are not yet in shelters. They have and will be provided with food, drink and first aid."

Minister for Disaster Management Anura Priyadarshana Yapa added that the relief operations will proceed to recover all possible survivors.

Speaking to Ceylon Today he added, "Our first priority is to look for any other casualties or any survivors. The next step would be to provide them shelter. We will provide them with housing facilities and make sure that there will be no garbage coming into the area. We will have to shift the existing garbage dump. This is something we have to prioritize. We will have to find a lasting solution for garbage in Colombo, and its surrounding suburbs."

The Police had requested the remaining residents to evacuate immediately, whilst managing the others who came to observe the wreckage. Yapa instructed the public to refrain from visiting the site unnecessarily as it would hinder relief operations.

"if this is not taken care of properly, it can collapse once more," said Yapa, with regard to the garbage deluge and the evacuation process. "So we have asked the NBRO to assess the situation. They have prepared report, which indicates that if there was another collapse of the garbage dump, we would see the exact area that could be affected."

He also added that those displaced, including those who lost their loved ones, will be provided with alternative housing facilities and compensation.

According to residents, President Maithripala Sirisena had visited the devastated site. Several MPs, including S.M. Marikkar, Mujibur Rahman and Dinesh Gunawardene had also visited the site.

Gunawardene and a few other Kolonnawa Urban Council representatives held an emergency meeting yesterday, in order to ascertain the drastic steps the government can take to contain the crisis.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Gunawardene said, "I visited the site yesterday. There were few other MPs also who did so. I met the people who were still going through the trauma, and hoping that their loved ones would be rescued from the collapsed garbage.

We met some of the representatives of the area and the public, who came to the general conclusion on the key areas. The Government should move fast, as an emergency unit and also with regard to short-term and long-term relief. I hope the Government will bring the situation under control. It will definitely drag. The army and the volunteers have moved in, on the instructions of the President, which is very good. The rest of the departments must move fast, especially the essential services must be expedited."

The Meethotamulla garbage dump has been embroiled in sordid politics for nearly a decade, resulting in a calamity that cost people's lives. The residents remain dejected, bereft of hope in the Government, albeit the Government's promise that garbage will not be dumped in Meethotamulla anymore.

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