YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic charity officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo are scrambling to provide food, shelter and medical care in the wake of devastating  floods believed to have claimed at least 400 lives, while also warning about possible outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as cholera.

“People are living in the water; the water is still rising, every day it’s rising, rising… We don’t really know how it’s going to end. There’s a lot of damage and houses are collapsing. Other houses are also submerged in water,” said Father Louis Iyeli, who heads the Catholic charity Caritas in the most affected region of Congo.

“Apart from the houses, there are churches, schools and health centers. People have deserted the offices, the stores, the warehouses, all that, there’s no way for people to continue working or selling,” Iyeli told the French Catholic news organization La Croix.

According to the Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, 686,000 people are currently affected, especially in Equateur Province in the northwestern part of the vast African nation. Iyeli said that in the area, buildings have been swept away, bridges have collapsed and thousands of people have been rendered homeless.

The floods have affected several other provinces in the DRC as well, including Tshopo, Mongala, North and South Ubangi, Kwilu, Mai-Ndombe, Kongo-Central, Lomami, Kasaï, Kasaï-Central, South Kivu and Tshuapa.

The country’s Minister of Social Affairs, Humanitarian Actions and National Solidarity, Modeste Mutinga said in a Jan. 5 statement that at least 43,000 houses have collapsed, as well as 1,325 schools, 259 health centers and 41 markets.

The floods swept across the country following heavy rains over the past months that swelled the Congo River, forcing the river to overflow its banks. The excess water triggered landslides and mudslides that swept away everything in their path.

“I almost died, but I escaped through the roof,” a local resident identified as Michel told Congolese media.

“Around 3 a.m., suddenly, we saw water starting to rise, mixed with garbage. I took all my children and evacuated them. I lost everything, but the main thing is that I saved my children,” he said.

“The water exploded on the wall. They overwhelmed the house. I almost died, but I escaped through the roof. This child was floating, I evacuated him, but his mother and three other children, including a two-month-old infant, died,” Michel said.

During the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, believers in the African nation with the largest Catholic population on the continent prayed for the victims of the floods.

“We have a duty to help our brothers who are flood victims, and to pray that the situation will improve quickly,” said Father Louis Ngoy, parish priest of Sainte Perpétue of Kinsuka.

Rising levels of the Congo River are nothing new, but this year, the level was the highest in over five decades. Experts have said that this being an El Nino year, the warm air current often triggers abundant rainfall, and the DRC’s position astride the equator has accentuated the situation.

On Dec. 28, the Régie des voies fluviales (RVF), a government entity that oversees water transport in the country, warned that the Congo River was going to witness an exceptional rise in level this year. It eventually rose by 5.94 m – second only to a 6.26 m spike in 1961.

The RVF called on the government and the population to take the necessary measures “to protect themselves from these floods, which affect almost the entire Kinshasa flood plain, threatening economic activities and local populations, and exposing the population to loss of life and property, as well as water-borne diseases.”

Iyeli has expressed concern that water-borne diseases such as cholera could break out in the wake of the floods, as people have to make recourse to the same water bodies where human bodies are decomposing. It’s a fear shared by the World Health Organization, which warned Jan. 12 that the flooding could trigger a cholera outbreak.

“WHO is committed to supporting the government to ramp up emergency response to save lives and ensure access to critical basic services,” said Lucien Manga, WHO representative in the Republic of Congo.

“We are working with partner organizations to bolster relief response, support livelihoods and limit the threat of disease outbreaks.”

Local activists are calling on the government to step up its response.

“The Congolese government and its partners should find a safe place where the victims will be relocated and ask the population not to use the flowing waters and the lake during this period,” said activist Valet Chebujongo in an interview with CNN.

As the country reels from the effects of the floods, the Holy Father has expressed his spiritual closeness to the people of the Central African country.

“I am very close to the peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, afflicted by floods in recent days,” the Holy Father said at the end of Jan. 7 Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.