UPDATED: Ghana opens biggest dam in capital as gas station blast deaths near 200; morgues in top hospitals full

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At least two days of rains caused chaos in Accra, with roads blocked and cars swept away or overturned by the flood waters.

GHANA released water from an overflowing dam in the capital, raising the risk of additional flooding after the heaviest rains in six years left almost 200 dead.

Spillways at the Weija dam in western Accra were opened after the water level rose to 48.2 feet (14.7 meters), higher than the maximum acceptable level of 47 feet, Stanley Martey, spokesman for Ghana Water Co., said by phone Friday.

Residents in the path of the water were warned to leave, he said. “The water level at the dam this morning was very dangerous and risky to the existence of the dam,” he said. “The rains are still falling from the in-take areas including the eastern region and more rains are expected.” 

The government is struggling to cope with showers in the world’s second-biggest cocoa producer that are heavier than normal for the wet season that began this month. At least 180 people have died since Wednesday, including about 100 who sought shelter at a gas station that caught fire during the storm. 

The morgues at the city’s two largest hospitals are near capacity, Citi FM radio reported. 

President John Dramani Mahama on Thursday pledged to fix the sewage blockages, including destroying homes near waterways to improve drainage, and declared three days of mourning starting Monday. 

Tough measures

The destruction was “exacerbated by uncontrolled human settlement and activity,” he said. “We will take the tough measures necessary to prevent such disasters in the future.” The rains that lasted more than six hours on Wednesday knocked over houses, pushed vehicles into overflowing ditches and brought down trees and power lines. 

Businesses ground to a halt as people were told to stay at home Thursday and there was no electricity for at least 24 hours in most parts of the city. 

Accra was already experiencing regular power outages. The crisis comes a year after the government put on hold a $600 million project to improve drainage, cover open drains and expand the sewer system. 

That project was promised in the wake of a severe flood in 2011 that damaged property. Mahama must now scramble to find the money to repair the damage and protect the city’s residents against future floods. 

Explosion heard across capital

As the president toured the scene of the disaster, he described the loss of life as “catastrophic and almost unprecedented” and announced three days of national mourning from Monday, with flags flying at half-mast, after rescue operations finished. 

“A lot of people have lost their lives and I am lost for words,” he told reporters. The fire, which is thought to have spread from a nearby residence, appeared to have engulfed a bus full of passengers that was waiting at the station, an AFP reporter at the scene said. 

Dozens of charred motorcycles and cars were visible on the forecourt. Local residents said many people had sought refuge under the filling station canopy from days of heavy rains that have engulfed Accra. 

Flood waters had reached knee level on the road beside the Ghana Oil Company (GOIL) petrol station in the Kwame Nkrumah Circle area of the city before the fire, which caused an explosion at the pumps, according to eye-witnesses. 

The inferno quickly spread to a nearby pharmacy and several buildings next to the filling station. The explosion was heard and seen across the capital. 

It was not immediately clear exactly how the victims died, with reports that some had drowned after being knocked unconscious and falling into the flood waters. 

Cocoa harvest

The GOIL filling station is next to a large open drain that carries water from surrounding areas to the sea. But like many gutters in the city, it was blocked with rubbish, causing water to spill onto the streets. 

Flooding is exacerbated by construction work in the city. One witness, Edgar Wiredu, told GTV 24 television: “Because of the construction work, the whole of (Kwame Nkrumah) Circle was flooded. “When the fire service got to the scene, they got stuck. They struggled to gain access to the scene.” 

Standing pools of water due to poor drainage have previously led to regular outbreaks of waterborne diseases, including cholera. The city reported the most cholera cases in more than two decades last year.

Ghana is in the middle of its cocoa harvest, which has been hampered by poor weather this year. The crop will probably be the smallest in five years, according to Ecobank Transnational Inc.

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