Libya evacuates flooded city as searchers look for 10,000 missing after death toll passes 11,000


Flooding aftermath is seen in Derna, Libya, Thursday, Sept.14, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)

BY YOUSEF MOURADDERNA, Libya, Sept. 15: Libyan authorities evacuated residents from an inundated city Friday and limited access to it, as searchers dug through mud and hollowed-out buildings for 10,000 people missing and feared dead in the flooding that has already killed more than 11,000.

Authorities warned that disease and explosives shifted by the waters could claim yet more lives.

Two dams collapsed in exceptionally heavy rains from Mediterranean storm Daniel early Monday, sending a wall of water several meters (feet) high gushing down a valley that cuts through the city of Derna.

The unusual flooding and Libya’s political chaos contributed to the enormous toll. The oil-rich state has been split since 2014 between rival governments in the east and west backed by various militia forces and international patrons.

The disaster has brought rare unity, as government agencies across Libya’s divide rushed to help the affected areas. But relief efforts have been slowed by the destruction after several bridges that connect the city were destroyed.

Heaps of twisted metal and flooded cars littered Derna’s streets, which are caked in tan mud. Teams have buried bodies in mass graves outside the city and in nearby towns, Eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel, said.

But officials worried that thousands more were yet to be found.

Bodies “are littering the streets, washing back up on shore and buried under collapsed buildings and debris,” said Bilal Sablouh, regional forensics manager for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“In just two hours, one of my colleagues counted over 200 bodies on the beach near Derna,” he said.

Divers are also combing the coastal waters off of the city.

Adel Ayad, a survivor of the flood, recalled watching as the waters rose to the fourth floor of his building.

“The waves swept people away from the tops of buildings, and we could see people carried by floodwater,” among them his neighbours, he said.

To allow emergency crews to do their work, residents would be evacuated from Derna and only search-and-rescue teams would be allowed to enter, Salam al-Fergany, director general of the Ambulance and Emergency Service in eastern Libya, announced late Thursday.

Health officials warned that standing water opened the door to disease — but said there was no need to rush burials or put the dead in mass graves, as bodies usually do not pose a risk in such cases.

“You’ve got a lot of standing water. It doesn’t mean the dead bodies pose a risk, but it does mean that the water itself is contaminated by everything,” Dr. Margaret Harris, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, told reporters in Geneva. “So you really have to focus on ensuring that people have access to safe water.”

Imene Trabelsi, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, warned that another danger lurked in the mud: landmines and other explosive remnants left behind by the country’s protracted conflict.

There are leftover explosives in Libya dating back to World War II, but most are from the civil conflict that began in 2011. Between 2011 and 2021, some 3,457 people were killed and wounded by landmines and explosive weapon remnants in Libya, according to the International Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

Even before the flooding, Trabelsi said the ability to detect and demine areas was limited. After the floods, she said, explosive devices may have been swept to “new, undetected areas” where they could pose an immediate threat to search teams and a longer-term threat to civilians.

The Libyan Red Crescent said as of Thursday that 11,300 people in Derna had died and another 10,100 were reported missing — though there was little hope many would be found alive. The storm also killed about 170 people elsewhere in the country.

Libyan media reported that dozens of Sudanese migrants were killed in the disaster. The country has become a major transit point for Middle Eastern and African migrants fleeing conflict and poverty to seek a better life in Europe.

Flooding often happens in Libya during the rainy season, but rarely with this much destruction. Scientists said the storm bore some of the hallmarks of climate change, and extremely warm sea water could have given the storm more energy and allowed it to move more slowly.

Officials have said that Libya’s political chaos also contributed to the loss of life, and Khalifa Othman said he blamed authorities for the extent of the disaster.

“My son, a doctor who graduated this year, my nephew and all his family, my grandchild, my daughter and her husband are all missing, and we are still searching for them,” said the Derna resident. “All the people are upset and angry — there was no preparedness.”

How did you feel after reading this news?