A loud bang was the first sign that something was about to go wrong in Kenya's Nakuru County on Wednesday night. Then came massive waves of water, which crashed through farmland, swept away hundreds of houses and killed at least 41 people. Almost half of the victims were children, police said.
“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house,” said Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi to Reuters. “He was blind, so he could not run. They found his body in the morning.”
The Patel dam, located on private farmland in western Kenya, had burst its banks after weeks of heavy rain. The rain has pounded East Africa for over a month, killing more than 100 people in Kenya and displacing 260,000. Rwanda and Ethiopia also have been affected by flooding, and about 100,000 people have been displaced in Somalia.
Photos circulating on social media show people wading through muddy water, some carrying bodies retrieved in the aftermath of the disaster. Lee Kinyanjui, the governor of Nakuru County, said on Twitter that the water “caused huge destruction of both life & property” and that he had already been to two villages “that were swept away.”
Police in Nakuru County said they found 11 bodies — including those of children — covered in mud at a coffee plantation close to the dam. “These are people who may have been escaping but could not make it due to the force and speed of the water from the flooded dam,” a police officer told Agence France-Presse.
Local leaders are reportedly investigating whether the farmer responsible for the dam was licensed to install it. His property is also home to two other dams that residents say are full and could soon burst, as well.
Wednesday's burst submerged buildings across a 1.2-mile radius, including homes and a primary school. “Many people are missing. It is a disaster,” said Joseph Kioko, a police chief in Rongai, Nakuru County.
Poor infrastructure has repeatedly set up dangerous situations for Kenya's rainy season, where flooding is common. Last year, the wall of a hospital in the city of Mombasa caved in because of rains, killing six. And in 2016, an entire residential building collapsed, killing 52 people.