The coastal city of Derna in Libya has been gripped by an unprecedented catastrophe as the death toll from a massive flood, triggered by the breach of two dams during heavy rains, has surged to a devastating 11,300, according to the Libyan Red Crescent.
Marie el-Drese, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Libya secretary-general, revealed that an additional 10,100 people are still reported missing in Derna, deepening the tragedy. Previously, health authorities had estimated the death toll in Derna at 5,500. The torrential storm also claimed the lives of approximately 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz, and Marj, as reported by Health Minister Othman Abduljalil.
The Mayor of Derna, Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi, expressed grave concern that the tally of casualties could rise further to an astonishing 20,000 given the extensive damage to numerous neighborhoods in the city.
The catastrophic flooding, which occurred on a fateful Sunday night, swept away entire families and laid bare the vulnerabilities of the oil-rich nation, which has grappled with conflict since the 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of the long-ruling dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
One survivor, who was injured during the ordeal and managed to scramble to safety with his mother, recounted the harrowing experience. “Within seconds, the water level suddenly rose,” he said. “The water was rising with us until we got to the fourth floor. We could hear screams. From the window, I saw cars and bodies being carried away by the water. It lasted an hour or an hour and a half – but for us, it felt like a year.”
Tariq al-Kharaz, an interior ministry spokesman, provided a somewhat lower estimate of the death toll in Derna, citing more than 3,000 casualties, but emphasized the enormity of the catastrophe and the challenges it posed to access disaster-stricken areas.
Search and rescue teams, despite the immense challenges they face, remain hopeful of finding survivors in the rubble and debris. Tamer Ramadan, the head of IFRC’s rescue effort in Libya, affirmed that “the hope is always there to find people alive.”
Derna has commenced the heartbreaking task of burying its dead, primarily in mass graves, as authorities grapple with the overwhelming scale of the disaster. More than 3,000 bodies had been interred by Thursday morning, while another 2,000 were still awaiting processing. Many of the deceased were laid to rest in mass graves outside Derna, while others were transferred to nearby towns and cities.
The complexity of the search and rescue operation is compounded by the presence of mud and debris, including overturned vehicles and chunks of concrete reaching up to 4 meters (13 feet) high, potentially hiding untold numbers of victims. Rescue teams have encountered difficulties in deploying heavy equipment due to washed-out or blocked roads leading to the affected areas.
Yann Fridez, the head of the Libya delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), described the disaster as “violent and brutal,” with a massive wave reaching 7 meters (23 feet) in height devastating buildings and infrastructure. ICRC is providing crucial support by distributing 6,000 body bags to ensure dignified treatment of the deceased.
However, as the tragedy unfolds, the World Health Organization and other aid organizations have urged Libyan authorities to refrain from conducting mass burials and cremations, emphasizing the importance of respectful and considered handling of the victims.
Access to Derna remains severely hampered due to the destruction of roads and bridges, along with disrupted power and phone lines, rendering at least 30,000 people homeless. The United Nations has called for the establishment of a sea corridor for emergency relief and evacuations to address this dire situation.
The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization chief, Petteri Taalas, has pointed out that many lives could have been spared if early warning and emergency management systems had functioned effectively in the war-scarred country, highlighting the importance of better coordination and preparedness.
The incident has also raised questions about the state of infrastructure and maintenance in Derna. According to local authorities, the dams had not been properly maintained since 2002. Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Sadeq Institute, placed blame on eastern authorities for neglecting critical infrastructure and maintenance, citing corruption and financial mismanagement as underlying causes.