10,000 people missing and thousands feared dead as eastern Libya devastated by floods

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CAIRO — Emergency workers found more than 1,500 bodies in the wreckage of the eastern Libyan city of Derna on Tuesday, and there were fears the toll could spiral with 10,000 people still reported missing after floodwaters going through dams and wiping out entire neighborhoods of the city.

The extraordinary death and destruction caused by the Mediterranean storm Daniel highlighted the intensity of the storm, but also the vulnerability of a nation torn apart by chaos for more than a decade. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east, the other in the west, resulting in the neglect of infrastructure in many areas.

Outside help was only just beginning to arrive in Derna on Tuesday, more than 36 hours after the disaster. The floods damaged or destroyed many access roads to the coastal city of about 89,000.

Pictures showed dozens of bodies covered in blankets in the garden of one hospital. Another image showed a mass grave piled with corpses. More than 1,500 bodies were collected, half of which were buried on Tuesday afternoon, the health minister for eastern Libya said.

The Derna ambulance authority put the current death toll at 2,300.

But the toll is likely to be higher, in the thousands, said Tamer Ramadan, Libya’s ambassador for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He told a UN briefing in Geneva via video conference from Tunisia that at least 10,000 people were still missing. He said later on Tuesday that more than 40,000 people have been displaced.

The situation in Libya is “as devastating as the situation in Morocco,” Ramadan said, referring to the deadly earthquake that struck near the city of Marrakesh on Friday night.

The destruction came to Derna and other parts of eastern Libya on Sunday night. When the storm hit the coast, residents of Derna said they heard loud explosions and realized that dams outside the town had collapsed. Flash floods were released down Wadi Derna, a river running from the mountains through the town and into the sea.

The wall of water “washed away everything in its path,” said one resident, Ahmed Abdalla.

Videos posted online by residents showed large swathes of mud and wreckage where the raging waters had washed away neighborhoods on both banks of the river. Multi-story apartment buildings that once stood far back from the river had had facades ripped away and concrete floors collapsed. Cars swept away by the flood were left dumped on top of each other.

Libya’s National Meteorological Center said Tuesday it issued early warnings for Storm Daniel, a “severe weather event,” 72 hours before its occurrence, and notified government authorities through emails and media… “urging them to take protective measures.” They said Bayda recorded a record 414.1 millimeters (16.3 inches) of rain from Sunday to Monday.

On Tuesday, local emergency responders, including soldiers, government workers, volunteers and residents dug through rubble looking for the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water.

Many bodies were believed to be trapped under debris or washed out into the Mediterranean Sea, said Libya’s eastern health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.

“We were shocked at the amount of destruction…

Red Crescent teams from other parts of Libya arrived in Derna on Tuesday morning but excavators and other equipment had not yet arrived.

Floods often occur in Libya during the rainy season, but this destruction is rare. A key question was how the waters were able to burst through two dams outside Derna – whether due to poor maintenance or heavy rain.

Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist and meteorologist at the University of Leipzig, said in a statement that Daniel dumped 440 millimeters (15.7 inches) of rain on eastern Libya in a short period of time.

“The infrastructure probably couldn’t cope, and as a result the dam collapsed,” he said, adding that human-induced increases in water surface temperatures contributed to the intensity of the storm. a storm

Derna has been neglected by local authorities for years. “Even the maintenance aspect was simply absent. Everything has been delayed,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a fellow specializing in Libya at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.

Factionism also comes into play. For many years Derna was under the control of Islamic militant groups. Military leader Khalifa Hifter, the strongman of Libya’s eastern government, captured the city in 2019 just after months of fierce urban fighting.

The eastern government has been suspicious of the town ever since and has tried to exclude its residents from any decisions, Harchaoui said. “This trust could be devastating in the post-disaster period,” he said.

Hifter’s eastern government based in the city of Benghazi is locked in a bitter conflict with the western government in the capital Tripoli. Each is backed by powerful militias and foreign powers. Hifter is also supported by Egypt, Russia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while the administration of western Libya is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

However, the initial response to the disaster brought some across the divide.

The Tripoli-based government in western Libya sent a plane with 14 tons of medical supplies and health workers to Benghazi. They also said they had allocated the equivalent of $412 million for reconstruction in Derna and other towns in the east. Planes arrived on Tuesday in Benghazi carrying humanitarian aid and rescue teams from Egypt, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt’s military chief of staff met with Hifter to coordinate aid. Germany and France said they were also preparing to send rescuers and helpers.

It was unclear how quickly the aid could be moved to Derna, 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Benghazi, given the conditions on the ground. Ahmed Amdourd, Derna municipal official, called a sea passage to deliver aid and equipment.

President Joe Biden said in a statement on Tuesday that the United States is sending emergency funds to relief agencies and coordinating with Libyan authorities and the UN to provide additional assistance.

“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to all the families who lost loved ones in the devastating floods in Libya,” he said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead. Bayda Medical Center, the main hospital, was flooded and patients had to be evacuated, according to a video shared by the center on Facebook.

Other towns that suffered were Susa, Marj and Shahatt, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.

Northeast Libya is one of the most fertile and green areas in the country. The Jabal al-Akhdar region – where Bayda, Marj and Shahatt are located – has one of the highest average annual rainfalls in the country, according to the World Bank.


Associate news writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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