The Libyan city of Derna has interred thousands of people in mass graves, officials revealed on Thursday. Search teams are currently sifting through the wreckage left by catastrophic floods, and the city’s mayor has warned that the death toll may triple.
The deluge swept away entire families on Sunday night, exposing vulnerabilities in the oil-rich country, which has been embroiled in conflict since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-ruling lead Moammar Gadhafi. Health officials have confirmed 5,500 deaths and report that 9,000 people are still missing.
Daniel, an unusually potent Mediterranean storm, caused fatal flooding in towns across eastern Libya, with Derna being the hardest hit. As the storm battered the coast on Sunday night, residents reported hearing loud explosions when two dams outside the city collapsed. Floodwaters surged down Wadi Derna, a valley that cuts through the city, destroying buildings and sweeping people out to sea.
A U.N. official stated on Thursday that most casualties could have been avoided.
“If there had been a normally functioning meteorological service, they could have issued the warnings,” said World Meteorological Organisation head Petteri Taalas during a press briefing in Geneva. “The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out the evacuation.”
The WMO had previously noted that the National Meteorological Center had issued warnings 72 hours before the flooding, notifying all governmental authorities through email and media outlets.
Officials in eastern Libya did alert the public about the impending storm but did not suggest that the dams might collapse or provide an evacuation plan.
The shocking devastation not only reflects the storm’s ferocity but also exposes Libya’s vulnerability. The oil-rich nation has been divided between rival governments for much of the past decade, one located in the east and the other in the capital, Tripoli. One consequence of this division has been the widespread neglect of infrastructure.
The two dams that collapsed outside Derna were constructed in the 1970s. A report from a state-run audit agency in 2021 revealed that the dams had not been maintained, despite the allocation of over 2 million euros for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.
Libya’s Prime Minister, based in Tripoli, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, acknowledged the maintenance issues during a Cabinet meeting on Thursday and urged the Public Prosecutor to initiate an urgent investigation into the dam failures.
This disaster has brought about a rare moment of unity, with government agencies from across the country rushing to aid the affected areas. While the government in east Libya’s Tobruk is leading relief efforts, the western government in Tripoli has allocated $412 million for reconstruction in Derna and other eastern towns. An armed group in Tripoli has also dispatched a humanitarian aid convoy.
Derna has begun burying its deceased, mostly in mass graves, according to eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel. By Thursday morning, more than 3,000 bodies had been laid to rest, with another 2,000 still awaiting burial. Most of the deceased have been buried in mass graves outside Derna, while some have been transferred to nearby towns and cities.
Abduljaleel mentioned that rescue teams are still searching through the wreckage in the city center, and divers are combing the sea off Derna. It’s possible that numerous individuals are buried under layers of mud and debris, including overturned cars and chunks of concrete, which rise up to four meters (13 feet) high. Rescue efforts have been hampered as the floods washed out or blocked the roads leading to the area.
As of Thursday morning, health authorities have reported a death toll of 5,500 in Derna. This number is expected to rise as search operations continue, and there are at least 9,000 people still missing, according to Ossama Ali, a spokesperson for an ambulance center in eastern Libya.
“Some bodies may not be found, especially those who were swept out to sea,” he said.
Local officials have suggested that the actual death toll could be much higher than announced. Derna Mayor Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi, in remarks to the Saudi-owned Al Arabia television station, stated that the count could reach 20,000 considering the number of neighborhoods that were wiped out.
An official from the U.N.’s World Health Organization in Libya has said that the fatalities could reach 7,000 due to the number of people still missing. This official, not authorized to speak to the media, made the statement on the condition of anonymity.
The storm also claimed approximately 170 lives in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz, and Marj, according to the health minister. Among the deceased in eastern Libya, at least 84 were Egyptians, who were repatriated to their home country on Wednesday. More than 70 of them hailed from a single village in the southern province of Beni Suef. Libyan media also reported that dozens of Sudanese migrants lost their lives in the disaster.
The floods have displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, according to the U.N.’s International Organisation for Migration. Several thousand others were compelled to leave their homes in other eastern towns.
The floods have damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, impeding the arrival of international rescue teams and humanitarian assistance. Local authorities have managed to clear some routes, and over the past 48 hours, humanitarian convoys have been able to enter the city.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has provided 6,000 body bags to local authorities, along with medical, food, and other supplies distributed to severely affected communities. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released $10 million in emergency funds and is appealing for additional support.
International aid started arriving earlier this week in Benghazi, located 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of Derna. Neighboring countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia have dispatched rescue teams and aid, as have Turkey, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. The U.K. and Germany have also sent supplies.
President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will provide financial assistance to relief organisations and collaborate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to offer further support.