The death toll from flooding that hit the eastern Libyan city of Derna reached more than 5,000 and was expected to rise further, a local health official said Wednesday, as authorities struggled to get aid to the coastal city where thousands remained missing and tens of thousands were homeless.
Aid workers who managed to reach the city, which was cut off Sunday night when flash floods washed away most of the access roads, described devastation in the city’s centre, where search and rescue teams combed shattered apartment buildings for bodies and retrieved floating bodies offshore.
“Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children,” Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, said over the phone from Derna. “Entire families were lost.”
Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding in many towns of eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna. As the storm pounded the coast Sunday, residents said they heard loud explosions when the dams outside the city collapsed. Floodwaters washed down Wadi Derna, a river running from the mountains through the city and into the sea.
The startling devastation pointed to the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east, the other in the west, and the result has been neglect of infrastructure in many areas.
Derna is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with the east Libya government. The rival government in west Libya, based in Tripoli some 900 km away is allied with other armed groups.
Collapsed bridges, roads
The floods damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, which lies on a narrow coastal plain on the Mediterranean under steep mountains running along the coast. Of seven roads leading to the city, only two are accessible from its southern edge.
Bridges over the river Derna that link the city’s eastern and western parts have also collapsed, according to the UN migration agency. The destruction has hampered the arrival of international rescue teams and humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged.
“The city of Derna was submerged by waves seven metres high that destroyed everything in their path,” Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee for The Red Cross in Libya, told France24. “The human toll is enormous.”
Ossama Ali, a spokesperson for the Ambulance and Emergency Center in eastern Libya, said at least 5,100 deaths were recorded in Derna, along with around 100 others elsewhere in eastern Libya. More than 7,000 people were injured in the city, most receiving treatment in field hospitals that authorities and aid agencies set up, he told The Associated Press by phone on Wednesday.
The number of deaths is likely to increase since search and rescue teams are still collecting bodies from the streets, buildings and the sea, he said.
At least 30,000 people in Derna were displaced by the flooding, the UN migration agency said. The damage is so extensive that the city is almost inaccessible for humanitarian aid workers, the International Organization for Migration said.
International aid pledged
Local emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents, continued digging through rubble looking for the dead. They also used inflatable boats and helicopters to retrieve bodies from the water and inaccessible areas.
Ahmed Abdalla, a survivor who joined the search and rescue effort, said they were putting bodies in the yard of a local hospital before taking them for burial in mass graves at the city’s sole intact cemetery.
“The situation is indescribable. Entire families dead in this disaster. Some were washed away to the sea,” Abdalla said by phone from Derna.
Bulldozers worked over the past two days to fix and clear roads to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and heavy equipment urgently needed for the search and rescue operations. The city is 250 kilometres east of Benghazi, where international aid started to arrive on Tuesday.
Libya’s neighbours, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have sent rescue teams and humanitarian aid.
Authorities have transferred hundreds of bodies to morgues in nearby towns. In the city of Tobruk, 169 kilometres east of Derna, the Medical Center of Tobruk’s morgue received more than 300 bodies for people killed in the Derna flooding; among them were 84 Egyptians, according to a list of dead obtained by The Associated Press.
President Joe Biden also said the United States is sending emergency funds to relief organizations and co-ordinating with the Libyan authorities and the UN to provide additional support.
Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s minister of international development, said on Monday the federal government is “monitoring the situation and are assessing how we can support the people of Libya in the wake of the devastating flooding.”