| A woman cries after her house is destroyed in coastal Colombo on Sunday. (AP)
Payagala, Dec. 26 (Reuters): Thousands of Sri Lankans abandoned their flooded homes and fled to higher ground today after the worst tsunami in living memory swamped the island's south and east shores, killing at least 3,500 people.
Government officials estimate 750,000 people have been left homeless, many sheltering in schools and temples, and said the final death toll could be much higher because hundreds of people washed out to sea have not yet been accounted for. The ensuing floods which came just a fortnight after severe monsoon flooding damaged crops and homes.
Witnesses in this small fishing town 60 km south of Colombo said giant waves crashed ashore this morning, sending a deluge of seawater into towns and villages.
'A wave up to 3 metres high hit this area and everything was swept away, including my three-wheeler taxi,' said 40-year-old fisherman Piyasoma, readying his family to stay with a relative several miles away.
A Reuters correspondent saw a second ocean swell flood the town and said the local railway station on the main north-south rail line had been destroyed. Tracks were broken and concrete station pavilions had collapsed.
Hundreds of locals were leaving the town to head inland, while dozens of foreign tourists waited by the side of the road, trying to get a lift back to Colombo. Telephone and Internet lines were down.
In the nearby town of Kalutara, holidaymakers staying at a luxury hotel on the seafront described how they saw a 2.5-metre wall of water crash onto the coast.
'We were sitting on sunbeds by the water when people started shouting a wave was coming in,' said visiting British car salesman Richard Freeman.'We left everything behind and ran inside. I just feel very sorry for the Sri Lankan people.'
Many hotels along the southern tourism belt ' jam-packed at the height of a bumper tourist season ' were flooded. A French tourist staying in the southern town of Tangalla said his young daughter had been swept away.
Doctors evacuated pregnant mothers from maternity wards near Galle, as others fled houses submerged under several metres of muddy water.
Witnesses saw corpses floating in floodwaters while thousands fled their homes in the hard-hit eastern port of Trincomalee as cars floated out to sea. 'The death toll has risen to 2,200. Over one million people are affected,' a PMO spokesman said.
The tsunami was triggered by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra that was followed by a series of aftershocks stretching north into the Andaman Sea. Waves up to 5 metres high crashed onto Sri Lanka's eastern and southern shores, flooding vast tracts of land and prompting President Chandrika Kumaratunga to declare a national disaster.
'I think this is the worst ever natural disaster in Sri Lanka,' said .D. Hettiarachchi, director of the National Disaster Management Centre.
Swells soaked coastal areas in the Tamil Tiger rebels' northeastern stronghold. Local media reported plastic landmines sown during Sri Lanka's two-decade civil war had been uprooted by the floods.
'Our naval base in Trincomalee is under water and right now, we are trying to manage the situation there while rescuing people,' said Navy spokesperson Jayantha Perera.
Colombo emerged largely unscathed, but slum areas close to rivers and waterways that criss-cross the capital were badly flooded.