Freetown: At least nine people were killed and thousands made homeless in severe floods Thursday as Sierra Leone was buffeted by torrential rain, with authorities warning of more potentially deadly storms on the horizon.
Residents described how floodwater destroyed their homes, swept away household goods and damaged vehicles as the capital Freetown -- an overcrowded city of 1.2 million strung between the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean -- was pounded overnight.
The toll rose to nine on Thursday afternoon but Information Minister Theo Nicol warned "it is likely to rise further because some people were carried away by mudslides."
Among the dead were three children, he said, giving their ages as three, four and 10, Amara Kamara, mortuary attendant at the city`s main Connaught Hospital, told AFP earlier.
The number of people taken by rescuers to two stadiums for shelter meanwhile rose to more than 5,000, Minister Nicol said.
President Ernest Bai Koroma ordered the evacuation of neighbourhoods prone to flooding, he added.
Witnesses in the worst-hit areas described seeing people carried away by the floodwater as their homes were destroyed.
"I witnessed two primary school children being swept away when they stepped on a slab... so I am certain the death toll will eventually be higher," a resident of Brookfields in western Freetown told AFP.
It rains six months of the year in Freetown, one of the world`s wettest cities, and putrid water from its populated slopes inundate its coastal slums every summer, causing cholera, dysentery and respiratory infections.
At least 20 neighbourhoods were flooded by the five-hour storm, according to a statement from the presidency that said the torrential monsoon rain would continue for at least six days.
Police and soldiers were deployed to the worst-hit areas to maintain law and order, it added.
The floods come as thousands of students prepare to take their West African Senior School Certificate Examination, threatening to throw into chaos the university admissions process.
The government announced it would organise buses to ensure that students were able to get to their exams, without giving details on how this would be achieved if the situation worsened.
A doctor told AFP rainwater had inundated six wards at the Connaught, the country`s largest hospital, forcing patients to be moved to makeshift treatment areas.
"We were able to contain the situation as we admitted over 100 people for abrasions, shock and hypothermia, while about 40 were treated and discharged," a separate medical source told AFP.
By 7:30am (0730 GMT), more than 600 people had sought refuge at the Brookfields National Stadium, emergency worker Mohamed Sillah said.
The 45,000-seat stadium, home to the national football team, is one of two Freetown sports grounds where emergency services were telling people to take refuge. Sillah said emergency workers were distributing drinks, bread and foam mattresses.
"The raging waters took away all my property," housewife Fatu Kargbo told an AFP correspondent on the Fourah Bay College slope in the east of the city.
"I have three children and four grandchildren who suffered some bruises and cuts but neighbours were able to rescue them before they were dragged away."
Mamie Sillah told AFP she had lost everything as the waters hit the Kroo Bay slum in central Freetown.
"I wonder whether it is worth living now. What I am wearing now is all I have," the 45-year-old said.
Five Red Cross emergency operations were at work plucking frightened residents from flooded neighbourhoods while at least three major bridges linking the city centre to its rural western edge were reported damaged.
"We were able to rescue at least 20 people, including children from school, who would have lost their lives," Teddy Jones, a leader of one of the teams, told AFP.
The government was to hold an emergency meeting headed by Vice-President Victor Foh, who is coordinating the relief efforts.
"The situation is serious and hundreds of people have been affected," Mary Mye-Kamara, the government`s director of disaster management, told reporters.