Our Perspectives

From the eyes of an early responder in Sierra Leone


A man speaking into a megaphone Realizing that the lack of basic tools was hampering relief efforts, UNDP provided shovels, megaphones and pickaxes to help with the search and rescue. Photo: Alpha Sesay/UNDP Sierra LeoneRealizing that the lack of basic tools was hampering relief efforts, UNDP provided shovels, megaphones and pickaxes to help with search and rescue. Photo: Alpha Sesay/UNDP in SIerra Leone

On 14 August, my phone starting ringing … It was my mother. She resides at Regent, a community on the slopes of Mount Sugar Loaf, the conical peak overlooking Freetown. Being at the epicentre of the catastrophic flash flood and landslides, she saw the disaster unfold and immediately called me, confirming my foreboding about receiving early morning calls from my mother.

When I arrived at the scene with UNDP colleagues in charge of disaster management and a few staff members from the Office of National Security (ONS), I was utterly shocked by the scene of devastation.

It was raining incessantly. The sky was gloomy, and one of Freetown’s highest mountains looked like it had been cracked in two. The landslides had claimed the lives of more than 400 people, leaving over 2,000 homeless and an estimated 600 still trapped in the debris. I had never seen such desolation in my entire life.

As we moved on, we saw ambulances carrying corpses and youth volunteers desperately working in the hope of rescuing survivors. We also saw people's resilience, of the kind we had already witnessed during the Ebola epidemic. They dug through the mud with bare hands to rescue their loved ones.

Realizing that the lack of basic tools hampered their efforts, UNDP provided shovels, megaphones and pickaxes to help with the immediate search and rescue.

Damage from the mudslide in Sierra LeoneThe topology of Freetown forces inhabitants to live either on the mountains or in the valley. Photo: Alpha Sesay/UNDP in Sierra Leone

Fifty youth were mobilized for crowd control and rescue teams provided with food and water to sustain their efforts throughout the day.

We also set up the first emergency coordination meeting with representatives of government ministries, agencies, institutions and community volunteers, about 200 yards away from the disaster site.  

Together with UNOPS and other partners, we are now working to conduct a geo-mapping exercise to help prevent and respond to future similar disasters.

Our post-recovery effort will be to strengthen the analytical, information management and coordination role of the ONS, the national body responsible for disaster response. UNDP already dispatched a data analyst to support the ONS Situation Room and will soon deploy a coordination specialist.

We also did an assessment of the damage to households in the worst-hit areas - Kamayamah, Juba Bridge, Kaningo, George Brook, Mountain Cut, Kissy Brook and Wellington - to commence debris collection. 

As Sierra Leone emerges from its week-long mourning, its top priority is to build back better. As for me, in spite of my sadness at the plight of my country, barely recovering from 10 years of civil war and the Ebola epidemic, I feel privileged to be part of the recovery process, and to share this moment of grief, sympathy and solidarity with my mother and my fellow country people.

Blog post Crisis response Sierra Leone Africa Disaster recovery Tanzila Watta Sankoh

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