Poor infrastructure and rising sea levels exacerbated flooding in Libya, says expert

Thousands of people are dead and at least 10,000 missing after devastating flooding in Libya. The Mediterranean storm brought heavy rains to the northeastern part of the country, already crumbling from more than a decade of conflict.  

“Although Storm Daniel caused the devastating flood, a combination of factors exacerbated the nation’s vulnerability to natural hazards, resulting in enormous casualties,” says Virginia Tech geophysicist Manoochehr Shirzaei. He points to poor infrastructure, years of civil war, under-investment in flood protection, rising sea levels, and land subsidence.

The worst damage is in Derna where neighborhoods have been washed away after two dams broke. The heavy rain in Libya appears to have overwhelmed the dams, leading to catastrophic flooding and devastating loss in the city,” says Jennifer Irish, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. “This situation is similar to the catastrophic levee failure and flooding in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed the city’s levee system.”

David Muñoz, a coastal scientist and civil engineering assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, has been following this, as well as flooding in China closely and says there are two very different stories here.  

“Both Hong Kong and Derna were affected by heavy rainfall, but Hong Kong has developed early-warning systems that help alert and evacuate people from flood-prone areas, thereby preventing any casualties,” says Muñoz. “Unfortunately, the lack of data hinders any efforts to develop early-warning systems for Derna where more than 2000 casualties are reported so far.” He explains that data and monitoring stations are key when it comes to anticipating events of this magnitude.

Muñoz says one way to provide flood forecasts and predictions in data-scarce regions is the use of machine learning models and satellite-derived imagery. His team in the CoRAL Lab uses that in addition to data fusion, and transfer learning techniques to improve flood hazard and risk characterization in data-scarce regions. He says those techniques have proven to be successful in his regional scale study published a few years ago.

While efforts to mitigate disasters like these are underway, Shirzaei expects that these kinds of storms will become more common due to climate change. “In the future, the associated casualties and costs will likely increase even further.”

At Virginia Tech’s Earth Observation and Innovation Lab, Shirzaei and his team of researchers are working to develop transformative and transdisciplinary solutions to tackle the challenges of climate change and prevent devastating events in the future. “This includes flood exposure and risk maps to improve future assessments of flooding impact, infrastructure vulnerability and exposure to relative sea level rise and flooding hazards, and on-demand flood-damage maps using satellite data to guide rapid response, and first aid team,” says Shirzaei.

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