KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan authorities warned of more landslides at a tea plantation where a deadly torrent of mud swept away scores of homes this week, but residents said Friday there was no room left at the shelters and no alternative housing for them to move to.
They also asked people in six other districts in the country's central hills to be on alert for possible mudslides.
Disaster relief officials estimate that at least 100 people were killed Wednesday when monsoon rains unleashed a cascade of muddy earth at the Koslanda plantation in Badulla district, about 140 miles (220 kilometers) east of Colombo. The death toll has yet to be confirmed, and many villagers believe the figure could exceed 200.
Officials have been releasing conflicting numbers since Wednesday, with initial reports saying more than 250 persons could have been buried.
Police on Friday reduced their estimate of the number of dead and missing to 37, saying the number was arrived at after interviewing the plantation management, local officials and affected families.
Kannusamy Mahendran, 34, whose home was still standing but in the danger zone, said residents have been warned of mudslides several times since 2002. But he said alternative housing has always been the problem.
"Officials come here and ask us to leave, but they don't tell us where to go," he said, adding that the families are at grave risk if another landslide barrels down the hills.
Mahendran said the government provided housing for only 25 of the 75 families in his neighborhood over the past years, and the rest are now being told to move into nearby schools and temples with the survivors of Wednesday's slide.
"But we can't go, (those shelters) are overcrowded," Mahendran said.
Some 1,600 people are currently in the shelters, most of them with homes still standing but vulnerable to more slides, said Rohana Keerthi Dissanayake, a top official in the region.
Local disaster relief official Udaya Kumara urged people in vulnerable areas to come to the camps, and promised to do his utmost to accommodate them.
"We can't give them the comforts of their homes, but we will give them whatever is possible. They must think that life comes first," he said.
Those whose kin are missing waited in agony as rescue workers using heavy machinery and sniffer dogs searched through the mud Friday.
Authorities said there was no hope of finding survivors, but many relatives say they want to give their loved ones a proper burial.
"They died tragically, but at least I want to give them a dignified funeral," said Sinniah Yogarajah, who lost all other five members of his household — his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and his 6-month-old grandchild.
As the scope of the disaster becomes clear, the government has asked the National Child Protection Authority to take charge of orphans.
Many children had left for school before Wednesday's 7:30 a.m. landslide, only to return to find their homes buried and their parents missing. Others looked as the mud engulfed their homes with their parents still inside.
Ravichandran Gajini, 14, said she and her 12-year-old brother, Suresh, watched their parents' last moments before the landslide swallowed up their home.
"We did not go to school that day and suddenly people shouted that there was an earth slip," she said. "We all ran out but my parents went back to collect our identity cards and the birth certificates."
She never saw her parents again.
Authorities were working to confirm how many children were orphaned. A government minister told Parliament on Thursday that they have found 75 orphans, but the number needs to be confirmed.
A large number of children in Sri Lanka's tea plantations drop out of school and work as domestic helpers or waiters in tea shops, and the government fears they could be exploited by recruiters.
The United States has given $50,000 to help provide blankets, mattresses, clothing, educational material for children and child counseling services, according to a U.S. Embassy statement Friday.
Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, is one of the world's leading tea producers.
Most of Sri Lanka has experienced heavy rain over the past few weeks, and the Disaster Management Center had issued warnings of mudslides and falling rocks. The monsoon season here runs from October through December.
Associated Press writer Eranga Jayawardena contributed to this report.