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Thousands killed and 10,000 reported missing in Libya flooding

Officials say rescue teams are struggling to retrieve bodies after dams burst and floodwaters swept away neighborhoods in the city of Derna.
Posted at 7:17 AM, Sep 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-12 13:07:26-04

More than 5,300 people have died in Libya's eastern city of Derna following devastating flooding, and 10,000 were reported missing as rescue teams struggled to retrieve many more bodies, local officials said Tuesday.

Mediterranean storm Daniel on Sunday night caused havoc and flash flooding in many towns in eastern Libya but the worst destruction was in Derna, where heavy rainfall and floods broke dams and washed away entire neighborhoods, authorities said.

Tamer Ramadan, Libya envoy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said 10,000 people were missing after the unprecedented flooding. Speaking to reporters at a U.N. briefing in Geneva via videoconference from Tunisia, he said the death toll was "huge" and expected to reach into the thousands in the coming days.

Speaking about the fallout from Friday's devastating earthquake in Morocco, on the other side of North Africa, Ramadan said the situation in Libya was "as devastating as the situation in Morocco."

Ossama Hamad, prime minister of the government in eastern Libya, said that many of the missing were believed to have been carried away after two upstream dams burst. He said the devastation in Derna is far beyond the capabilities of his country.

The Libyan Red Crescent said early Tuesday that its teams counted more than 300 people dead in Derna, which authorities have declared a disaster zone.

More bodies were still under the rubble in the city's neighborhoods, or washed away to the sea, according to eastern Libya's health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.

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Derna residents posted videos online showing major devastation. Entire residential blocks were erased along Wadi Derna, a river that runs down from the mountains through the city center. Multi-story apartment buildings that once stood well back from the river were partially collapsed into mud.

Abduljaleel said the city was inaccessible and bodies were scattered all over, according to Libya's state-run news agency. 

"The situation was more significant and worse than we expected. … An international intervention is needed," he was quoted as saying.

Emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents were digging through rubble to recover the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water. Excavators and other equipment have yet to arrive in Derna.

Many residents described scenes of chaos when floods hit the center. They heard loud explosions at night and realized that dams outside the city collapsed, sending a wall of water that "erased everything in its way," said Ahmed Abdalla, a Derna resident.

Workers said they buried more than 200 bodies in one cemetery on Monday. Footage overnight showed dozens more bodies on the ground, covered by blankets or sheets, in a hospital yard in Derna.

More than 15 inches of rain fell over parts of Libya in a short time, experts say. 

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead. The Medical Center of Bayda, the main hospital, was flooded and patients had to be evacuated, according to footage shared by the center on Facebook.

Other towns that suffered, included Susa, Marj and Shahatt, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in the city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.

Northeast Libya is one of the country's most fertile and green regions. The Jabal al-Akhdar area — where Bayda, Marj and Shahatt are located — has one of the country's highest average annual rainfalls, according to the World Bank.

Authorities in eastern and western Libya rushed to help Derna residents. The Health Ministry in Tripoli said a plane carrying 14 tons of medical equipment, drugs and body bags, along with health care workers headed Tuesday to Benghazi. Other agencies across the country said they would send humanitarian aid to Derna.

Foreign governments also sent messages of support to Libya.

Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates were among those that said they would send humanitarian assistance and teams to help with search and rescue efforts. The U.S. Embassy said Monday it was contacting the United Nations and Libyan authorities on how to deliver aid to the most affected areas.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi convened his military commanders on Tuesday to arrange urgent assistance to Libya. He said in televised comments that the military would deploy equipment and personnel in coordination with eastern Libyan forces to help affected communities.

After more than a decade of chaos, Libya remains divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and one in the west, each backed by different militias and foreign governments. The conflict has left the oil-rich North African country with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure.

Known for its white-painted houses and palm gardens, Derna is about 560 miles east of the capital of Tripoli. It is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, who is allied with the east Libya government. The rival government in west Libya, based in Tripoli, is allied with other armed groups.

Much of Derna was built by Italy when Libya was under Italian occupation in the first half of the 20th century. The city was once a hub for extremist groups in the yearslong chaos that followed the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.