At least 2,000 fatalities have been reported in Libya’s eastern city of Derna after dams burst in a torrential rainstorm, unleashing floods that may have destroyed a quarter of the city.
Some 10,000 people have been reported missing and rescue workers fear many of them will be added to the tally of the dead.
“We can confirm from our independent sources of information that the number of missing people is hitting 10,000 so far. The death toll is huge and might reach thousands,” Tamer Ramadan, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in Libya, warned on Tuesday.
Ramadan pointed out that the flood in Derna is “as devastating as the situation in Morocco,” where an earthquake on Friday killed over 2,000 people.
The IFRC reported that three of its rescue volunteers from the LIbya Red Crescent have been killed while attempting to aid flood victims in Derna.
Eastern Libya was struck by a Mediterranean storm system named Daniel, comparable in ferocity to a tropical storm. Daniel dropped record-setting amounts of rain on Greece and Turkey last week before heading into Libya on Monday.
Greece is dealing with widespread flooding in its breadbasket region of Thessaly and Prime Minister Kyriakos Misotakis has been castigated by the opposition for not doing enough to prepare for the storm. As of Tuesday morning, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria have reported 26 casualties from the storm among them.
When Mediterranean Storm Daniel hit the Libyan coast on Sunday night, it dumped over 16 inches of rain in less than 24 hours, which is close to the annual rainfall expected in some of those areas. Eyewitnesses in Derna reported seeing ten-foot flood waters when the dams were overwhelmed.
At least two dams near Derna reportedly burst when the flood waters hit them. As Al-Arabiya pointed out, Derna’s infrastructure was not well-maintained due to the area’s tortured political history:
Since a 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed long-time ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has lacked a central government and the resulting lawlessness has meant dwindling investment in the country’s roads and public services and also minimal regulation of private building. The country is now split between rival governments in the east and west, each backed by an array of militias.
Derna itself, along with the city of Sirte, was controlled by extremist groups for years, at one point by those who pledged allegiance to ISIS, until forces loyal to the east-based government expelled them in 2018.
The eastern Libyan government is the one dominated by warlord Khalifa Haftar. The internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, which Haftar attacked in 2020 in an unsuccessful bid to seize control of the entire country.
Libyan journalist Abdulkader Assad told the BBC on Tuesday that eastern Libya’s confused and ineffectual government is making disaster response more difficult.
“There are no rescue teams, there are no trained rescuers in Libya. Everything over the last 12 years was about war,” Assad said.
“There are two governments in Libya … and that is actually slowing down the help that is coming to Libya because it’s a little bit confusing. You have people who are pledging help but the help is not coming,” he said.
“There is a huge resentment and a fracture between the two sides. There is resentment even on the streets as to why the east has been neglected all this time … to the extent that even individuals and groups that are trying to help from the west bringing in through private cars are not very well received in the east,” said Hani Shennib, president of the National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations.
“I have visited Derna quite frequently. I have been shocked that a city of 100,000 people does not have a single hospital that is functioning,” Shennib, who is a physician, told Al Jazeera News on Tuesday.
“The erosions in the dams in Derna are not new. They have been reported repeatedly, including in scientific journals from 2011 and moving on. No official has paid attention to it. This is not just a natural disaster, this is a human disaster, as well as a result of the neglect of the city,” he said.
The Associated Press (AP) quoted eastern government officials who said they could not reach Derna because the flood wiped out its roads and bridges.
The eastern health minister, Othman Abduljaleel, said it would take time to confirm a final death toll because many of the bodies were washed out into the Mediterranean.
“We were stunned by the amount of destruction … the tragedy is very significant, and beyond the capacity of Derna and the government,” Abduljaleel told the AP.
“Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” said the eastern government’s civil aviation minister, Hichem Abu Chkiouat, after visiting Derna.
“The number of bodies recovered in Derna is more than 1,000. I am not exaggerating when I say that 25% of the city has disappeared. Many, many buildings have collapsed,” he said.
Chikout admitted that “the dam that collapsed hasn’t been maintained in a while.”
Although international aid agencies have given much more cautious counts of the dead so far, the eastern government said on Tuesday morning that at least 5,200 people were killed by the floods.
International aid groups and foreign governments, including the United States, pledged emergency assistance to Derna and other eastern Libyan cities flooded by Mediterranean Storm Daniel, but getting personnel and supplies into the badly damaged city is a challenge. The prime minister of the eastern government, Osama Hamad, said on Tuesday there are “no communications” with the city.
“The United States expresses its sympathies and condolences to those affected by the devastating flooding in Libya. The United States is coordinating with UN partners and Libyan authorities on how we can assist the ongoing relief efforts,” the U.S. State Department said on Monday.
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