Search and rescue teams kept up frantic efforts yesterday to save thousands marooned by fatal flash floods in southwest Ethiopia where relief workers reported near total devastation.
With poor weather continuing to hamper operations, officials said the death toll in the remote Omo River valley would rise above the current figure of 364, possibly sending the nationwide tally from recent flooding soaring.
Already, nearly 900 people in southern, eastern and northern Ethiopia have been reported dead or missing in the past two weeks, and between 5,000 to 8,000 people in 14 inundated villages in the south remain stranded, they said.
Helicopter pilots at a military base in Arba Minch -- about 500km southwest of Addis Ababa from where relief flights are taking off -- said they had hadn't been able to rescue all of those stranded.
"We were able to airlift about 400 people to higher ground yesterday," one pilot said on condition of anonymity.
"Our flight spotted another 1,000 or so people stranded, but we weren't able to land," he said.
Where the pilot was able to land and speak to survivors, he said they spoke of horrendous suffering from the floods that washed away family members, livestock and homes when the Omo River burst its banks on Sunday.
"It is horrifying and heartbreaking," he said. "Their stories are pushing us to do more to rescue people at any cost."
Air drops of food, clean water and blankets continued as uncertain currents from raging flood waters prevented both helicopters and boats from reaching affected areas where officials said they feared outbreaks of disease.
"The people are in need of urgent help because there is an increased risk for malaria and other waterborne diseases," said Atu Lema, the secretary general of southern branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross.
"As we are speaking there are heavy rains ... roads have been cut off we are having a problem taking relief supplies by road to the region," he said as he accompanied a relief convoy in the south.
He described the devastation as "massive" and said the loss of livestock and destruction of granaries would have long-lasting impacts on local populations.