Disaster officials estimate that at least 100 people were killed on 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.

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 neighbourhood 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 today.

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.

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