Torrential rains between the 11th and 19th May 2003, affected the southern districts of Ratnapura, Matara, Hambantota, Kaluthara and Galle. This was the worst natural disaster in 50 years in Sri Lanka. Floods and landslides claimed 260 lives and destroyed schools, homes and other infrastructure. Floodwaters have been from 5 to 20 feet deep (higher than many rural houses). Many buildings had been submerged, particularly in the Ratnapura district, where the city’s clock tower was reported to be under 15 feet of water. The majority of homeless were also located in the Ratnapura district. Forty-seven bodies were recovered from one village after a landslide wiped out the entire village. About 180,000 people had their homes damaged or destroyed, with about 700 missing persons and over 129,000 families displaced. Some 120,000 people had been evacuated to schools and temples, and helicopters were dropping emergency rations in villages that were cut off and cannot be reached.
A four-member special Presidential Secretariat Desk had been set up to handle the flood situation. The government had also appointed a four-member Disaster Management Ministerial Committee, allocated 6 million rupees for immediate relief and announced it will pay 15,000 rupees for funeral expenses for each of the dead. The army and the navy had been deployed in support of the government’s ongoing relief effort.
On May 13th, a cyclone hit the country and since then it had been raining heavily in the central and southern parts of the country, caused by a tropical depression in the Bay of Bengal. Furthermore, the Department of Meteorology warned of new rains on Monday 19th of May 2003. Natural disasters of this magnitude are rare in Sri Lanka.