ASSIST News Service

At least 20 people are confirmed dead and hundreds of thousands are homeless as a result of flooding on the island nation of Sri Lanka.

"This is the worst flooding to hit the country since the Asian tsunami devastated Sri Lanka in 2004," said Gospel for Asia president Dr K P Yohannan. "They had absolutely no warning that this huge storm was on the way. It took them totally by surprise."

Dr Yohannan had just spoken with Lal Vanderwal, GFA's country leader in Sri Lanka, who reports that entire villages are underwater. 

"Their homes are flooded and they've lost everything," Dr Yohannan said. "The children don't have any clean clothes to wear and their schoolbooks have been destroyed."

GFA says the flooding was caused by torrential rains that inundated the teardrop-shaped island for more than a week.

Sri Lanka, a country of 18.6 million people, is located off the southeast coast of India. Its location in the Bay of Bengal makes it subject to the seasonal monsoon weather pattern. The monsoon rains, which last for months, usually arrive in the last few days of May.

Meteorologists say these disastrous pre-monsoon rainstorms were intensified by Cyclone Laila, which recently blasted the Bay of Bengal and is devastating some of India's coastal areas. While Cyclone Laila spared Sri Lanka, it is blamed for 16 deaths in India.

Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Center reports that more than 600,000 people were displaced by the flooding. 

According to GFA, many of those affected are the poorest of the poor who live in low-lying areas and shanty-type structures, which have no chance against the brutal force of the driving rain or the fast-moving floodwater. One major city is facing a grim situation with more than 40,000 homes damaged by the floods, and subsequent landslides, GFA says.

Gospel for Asia Compassion Services teams are already providing emergency medical care, food rations, clean water, and other immediate household needs.

"As soon as the extent of the devastation became clear, a high-ranking elected official in the Sri Lankan government contacted our leaders and asked us to help," Dr Yohannan said. "This government official said the need is so great, and they know that we are always ready to bring aid."

The 'compassion services' teams, mobilised out of the more than 100 Sri Lankan churches led by Gospel for Asia-supported missionaries, will spend the first few days taking care of immediate food, shelter and clothing needs. They are already distributing food packets containing rice, lentil beans, sugar, milk, potatoes, dried fish, crackers, salt and soap.

GFA says that once the floodwaters subside they will shift gears and begin the task of helping flood victims rebuild their lives.

One of the first tasks will be to clean out thousands of water wells that have been contaminated by the floods. Later, they will rebuild homes, and restore items needed for the people to maintain their livelihood.

In addition to helping the people, GFA-supported missionaries will have to assess the damages to their own churches and to the dozens of Bridge of Hope Centers on the island.

"We have months and months of work ahead of us," Dr Yohannan said.

Correction: The death toll in this article was initially given as 200 but has since been corrected to 20.