HomeNewsThousands missing and feared dead after floods submerge eastern Libya

Thousands missing and feared dead after floods submerge eastern Libya

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Thousands are feared to have died in floods that engulfed eastern Libya after Storm Daniel smashed into the North African country, swallowing whole neighborhoods and an unknown number of residents.

Raging torrents of water tore through two dams in Derna, the city affected most acutely, sweeping entire buildings into the sea. Othman Abdul Jalil, health minister and spokesman for the U.N.-recognized government in western Libya, told local television channel al-Masar that the situation was continuing to deteriorate early Tuesday in the eastern city, and that at least 2,000 people had been found dead.

“I expect numbers of dead will rise to 10,000,” he said.

The final death toll remains unknown, as many parts of the city are still inaccessible. Derna is estimated to have had about 90,000 residents. The “casualty count will remain elusive until after the search-and-rescue efforts” have ceased, said Jessica Moussan, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Derna’s deputy mayor, Ahmed Madroud, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that “at least 20 percent of the city is destroyed.”

“We call on friendly countries to help us save what is left of Derna,” Abdul Jalil said. “The field hospital is filled with corpses.”

Libya’s infrastructure has suffered repeated blows during a civil war that broke out after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country remains split between rival governments in the east and the west, a divide that has fueled confusion over causality counts and the coordination of a humanitarian response.

Videos posted online by local residents, and later by Libyan and international media outlets, convey scattered hints of the scale of the devastation: rows of dead bodies covered in shrouds, blocks of building damaged or destroyed, overturned cars strewn along mud-covered roads. Images shared on social media, and captured by journalists, show entire neighborhoods riven by the surging flood.

In photos, videos: Libya floods bring ‘catastrophe’ to Derna

Tamer Ramadan, head of the Libyan delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said a staggering number of people remain missing — up to 10,000 in the five most affected cities.

“Our teams on the ground are still doing their assessment, but from what we see and from the news coming to us, the death toll is huge,” Ramadan told reporters in Geneva via video from Tunisia. He said he expects the number of deaths to be in the thousands.

President Biden sent “deepest condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones in the devastating floods in Libya,” in a statement posted Tuesday to X, formerly Twitter. “The United States is sending emergency funds to relief organizations and coordinating with the Libyan authorities and the UN to provide additional support.”

Drone footage from Sept. 11 shows the flooded town of Al-Marj. (Video: Al Masar TV)

Authorities in both the east and the west declared Derna a disaster zone on Monday after the water poured through it, submerging parts of the city in copper-colored liquid.

“At first we just thought it was heavy rain but at midnight we heard a huge explosion and it was the dam bursting,” Raja Sassi, 39, told Reuters. He escaped with his wife and small child. But other members of his family died, he said, and the city was full of corpses.

Other Derna residents told Reuters they survived by hanging onto floating furniture for hours, or running for blocks along rooftops.

So far, three members of the Libyan Red Crescent have been confirmed dead, Ramadan said, and a fourth remains missing.

An aid worker for the Danish Refugee Council’s Libya team died “selflessly taking part in rescue efforts” in Derna, the humanitarian group said in a statement.

Mapping why Libya’s floods were so deadly

The government in western Libya rushed to help the east after the apocalyptic images surfaced. Telecommunications networks were down on Monday and early Tuesday. Abdul Jalil said the authorities lost contact with Derna’s emergency services at 3:30 a.m. TV channel al-Masar said it also could not reach its correspondents on the ground.

In a statement early Tuesday, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, head of a coalition of factions and irregular fighters in the east known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), called on other parts of the country to help the cities and towns in the Green Mountain area, which includes Derna and other affected areas.

That help could be slow to come. Mary Fitzgerald, a Libya expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said political elites in both the country’s east and west “have not prioritized the huge infrastructural challenges Libya faces” after years of war and governmental neglect.

“Many Libyans would say this was a disaster waiting to happen and a stark and very shocking reminder of how bad infrastructure has been,” she said.

The U.N.-recognized government based in Tripoli “has little or no influence on what happens in eastern Libya,” where Hifter is the de facto authority and restricts access, a further complication to relief efforts. “But the government in Tripoli holds the purse strings and dispenses funds.”

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, supporters of the LNA, have dispatched search-and-rescue teams and medical personnel to provide assistance. Turkey, which has traditionally supported the LNA’s foe in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord, said it has dispatched three planes carrying search-and-rescue teams and humanitarian supplies.

The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that it had transferred “urgent relief items like blankets, hygiene kits, and solar lamps to cover immediate needs of 5,000 affected people.”

The U.S. special envoy for Libya, Ambassador Richard Norland, said Libyan Americans have also reached out, “anxious to make private contributions to relief efforts.”

Asmahan Belaoun, a member of parliament with family ties to Derna, told The Washington Post on Monday that the highest priorities are providing a telecommunications network and helicopters to find survivors. She added that as winter approaches, the dams must be urgently rebuilt to keep any future flooding at bay.

With roads severed and communications networks down, it remains difficult even to speak to people in the area to assess the scale of the damage and take stock of the missing, said Moussan, of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

At present, the organization is focused on providing shelter and food assistance. But soon, one of its most important functions will be managing the dead, she said, in the hope that bodies can be stored in such a way that loved ones might one day be able to identify them.

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