Libya floods death toll rises to 5,300; quarter of Derna destroyed


The floods that ravaged eastern Libya destroyed a quarter of the coastal city of Derna and left bodies lying in the street, said an aid official Wednesday as the government raised the death toll to 5,300.

The Interior Ministry announced the new toll Tuesday night as rescue and aid operations gained steam and the rival governments of Libya appeared to be setting aside their long-simmering hostilities to deal with the devastation.

After storm waters destroyed two dams in east Libya, a devastating flood washed through Derna on Sept. 11, washing away people, cars and buildings. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

“They tell us that almost a quarter [of Derna] was vanished away by the hurricane. They tell us that the dead bodies, you can see them on the streets everywhere,” said Tamer Ramadan of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, relaying reports from aid workers. “But they also tell us about the solidarity coming from the Libyan people. Many volunteers are coming from the west to the east to support the affected population.”

Mapping why Libya’s floods were so deadly

During his briefing on X, formerly known as Twitter, Ramadan added that the western, United Nations-recognized government has promised to deploy medical convoys. In a sign of new détente between the governments that were at war just a few years ago, Othman Abdul Jalil, health minister and spokesman for the western government, spoke from the stricken eastern city of Derna.

“We are now in the emergency room that the government formed inside the headquarters of the Derna Security Directorate,” he told the Turkish Anadolu news agency. “The situation in the city is very miserable.”

Derna, the city most affected by the Mediterranean’s devastating Storm Daniel, was covered with red-stained pools after raging torrents of water broke through two dams Sunday night and swallowed whole parts of the city, sweeping away buildings filled with an unknown number of inhabitants.

The International Organization for Migration reported that 30,000 people in Derna have been rendered homeless by the flooding, which also blocked many of the roads into the city and caused widespread power and communication outages.

Libyan TV Channel al-Masar said a hospital in Derna is overflowing with corpses and has begun placing them in the square outside. It showed a video of a classroom, the seats pushed against the wall and the floor covered with black body bags.

Thousands remain missing. The Libyan Red Crescent, which has focused efforts on search and rescue missions, has been pulling bodies out of the muddied waters that have submerged the town.

In his conference, Ramadan said his organization’s priority is to alert the international community to the situation in Libya, which he called “a forgotten crisis over the past couple of years” as the world’s attention turned elsewhere.

“Like what happened a couple of days ago with Morocco, like what happened globally with Ukraine. Yes, these are very important crises to support, but Libya is no less important than them,” he said.

International aid organizations put out calls on Wednesday for funds to deal with the huge numbers of people displaced.

Libya has been ravaged by war since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, after which the country was divided into two: the east, where Gen. Khalifa Hifter heads a coalition of factions and irregular fighters known as the Libyan National Army; and the west, where a U.N.-supported government rules from the capital, Tripoli.

Libya is filled with people “who are already living in precarious circumstances,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization. She said the flooding was of “epic proportions.”

“There’s not been a storm like this in the region in living memory, so it’s a great shock,” she said.

Libya has also become a “key springboard” for migrants from over 40 countries hoping to take the perilous sea route to Europe; these migrants have most likely been severely impacted by the floods, the International Organization for Migration warned.

The civil war that has raged in the country since the fall of Gaddafi has forced the population to suffer through intermittent fighting as political stalemates and uneasy cease-fires were peppered with outbursts of violence. Much of the infrastructure and public services are decrepit or absent.

The dams in the hills above Derna that collapsed are believed to have been in poor condition and couldn’t handle the unprecedented amount of water that crashed against them in some of the worst flooding in over a century.

Derna in particular is one of the more marginalized parts of the coastal region and was the scene of major fighting in 2018 and 2019 between Hifter’s forces and local Islamist militants, warfare that left substantial destruction.

In January, a World Bank report said Libya is rife with corruption and political instability, and life in the country is marred with unpredictability in policy and a general lack of access to good-quality infrastructure.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, or NRC, said its team in Libya is reporting “a disastrous situation for some of the most impoverished communities” along Libya’s northern coast.

“Entire villages have been overwhelmed by the floods, and the death toll continues to rise,” the council said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of people are displaced with no prospect of going back home.”

The NRC put out a call for aid to set the country on a long, arduous path to recovery. “Humanitarian aid groups in Libya have been chronically underfunded,” it emphasized.

Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.


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