KALUTARA, Sri Lanka: Thousands of Sri Lankan troops battled on Monday (May 29) to get relief supplies to over half a million people displaced by the island's worst flooding for 14 years, which has killed at least 180 people.
The military said a lull in torrential monsoon rains allowed it to deploy aircraft, boats and ground troops to evacuate people from flooded areas, deliver essentials and recover bodies.
Just over 550,000 people have had to abandon their homes due to the heavy rains, which have brought flooding and landslides to large parts of the island's southwest.
Sri Lanka is regularly hit by flooding at the start of the annual monsoon. But carpenter J. H. Siripala, who lives in one of the areas worst hit, said he had never seen it this bad.
"I have lived in this area for 27 years and we have gone through floods, but never experienced this much water," the 62-year told AFP in Kalutara district on the southwest coast as a navy boat carried him to safety.
"I thought it was my end," he said as he recalled how the water level suddenly rose on Sunday, covering his head, before he was pulled to safety.
Dhanushka Fernando said his house was under eight feet (2.5 metres) of water on Sunday. "We had floods in 2003 but not this much water," the 28-year-old told AFP.
In May 2003, 250 people were killed and 10,000 homes destroyed after a similarly powerful monsoon.
The official death toll rose to 180 on Monday after soldiers dug out the bodies of a woman and a child from under tonnes of mud following a landslide in Ratnapura, the island's gem capital.
The Disaster Management Centre said another 110 people were missing.
Just over 5,500 houses have suffered structural damage or been completely destroyed, according to official figures.
A Mi-17 transport helicopter crash landed Monday while trying to deliver food and other essentials to a marooned village in the southern area of Baddegama. But air force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said there were no casualties.
Military spokesman Roshan Seneviratne said a let-up in the rains had allowed troops to access cut-off villages.
Sri Lanka has deployed 1,800 soldiers and 1,100 naval personnel to evacuate people and ferry food and other essentials to affected areas.
The paramilitary Civil Defence Force said it was deploying about 2,000 personnel while the police have sent their elite commandos to help.
The government said floodwaters were beginning to recede on Monday but some low-lying areas remained heavily inundated.
All schools in flood-hit areas, including the capital Colombo, will be closed for a week, it said.
As the rains eased in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and parts of India issued warnings over Cyclone Mora, which is expected to make landfall on Tuesday.
Bangladeshi authorities ordered all fishing crews to return to shore and advised people living in the southeastern area of Cox's Bazar to move to higher ground.
Sri Lanka has sought international assistance, with India sending two naval ships laden with supplies over the weekend. A third ship was expected this week, officials said.
The United Nations said it would donate water containers, water purification tablets and tarpaulins while the World Health Organization will support medical teams in affected areas.
Japan had promised portable generators and a team of experts to help with relief work.