DERNA, Libya (AP) — The death toll in the Libyan coastal town of Derna has risen to 11,300 as search efforts continue following a massive flood fueled by the failure of two dams during heavy rains, the Libyan Red Crescent said on Thursday.
Marie el-Drese, secretary general of the humanitarian group, told The Associated Press by telephone that another 10,100 people are believed to be missing in the Mediterranean city. Health authorities had previously estimated the death toll in Derna at 5,500. The storm also killed around 170 people elsewhere in the country.
Floods swept away entire families in Derna on Sunday evening and highlighted the vulnerabilities of the oil-rich country, mired in conflict since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Here is an overview of the situation:
WHAT HAPPENED IN LIBYA?
Daniel, an unusually violent Mediterranean storm, caused deadly flooding in communities in eastern Libya, but the worst hit was Derna. As the storm hit the coast Sunday evening, residents said they heard loud explosions as two dams outside the town collapsed. Floodwaters poured into Wadi Derna, a valley that runs through the town, destroying buildings and sweeping residents out to sea.
A UN official said Thursday that most of the casualties could have been avoided.
“If there had been a normal operational weather service, they could have issued warnings,” World Meteorological Organization director Petteri Taalas told reporters in Geneva. “Emergency management authorities could have carried out the evacuation.”
The WMO said earlier this week that the National Meteorological Center issued warnings 72 hours before the floods, informing all government authorities by email and media.
Authorities in eastern Libya warned the population of the storm’s arrival and ordered residents on Saturday to evacuate coastal areas, fearing a surge in the sea. But there was no warning about the collapse of dams.
HOW DOES THE CONFLICT IN LIBYA AFFECT THE DISASTER?
The surprising devastation reflects the intensity of the storm, but also Libya’s vulnerability. Oil-rich Libya has been divided between rival governments for most of the past decade – one in the east, the other in the capital, Tripoli – with widespread neglect of infrastructure resulting.
The two dams that collapsed outside Derna were built in the 1970s. A report from a state auditing body released in 2021 indicated that the dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than 2 million euros for this purpose in 2012 and 2013.
Tripoli-based Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah acknowledged maintenance problems at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday and called on the attorney general to open an urgent investigation into the dam collapse.
The disaster brought a rare moment of unity, as government agencies across the country rushed to help affected areas.
While the government in Tobruk, eastern Libya, leads relief operations, the western government based in Tripoli has allocated the equivalent of $412 million to rebuild Derna and other towns in the region. east, and an armed group from Tripoli sent a humanitarian aid convoy.
WHAT IS HAPPENING TODAY?
Derna has started burying its dead, most of them in mass graves, eastern Libya’s Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel said Thursday.
More than 3,000 bodies had been buried as of Thursday morning, the minister said, while another 2,000 were still being processed. He said most of the dead were buried in mass graves outside Derna, while others were transferred to neighboring towns.
Abduljaleel said rescue teams were still searching destroyed buildings in the city center and divers were combing the sea off Derna.
Untold numbers of people could be buried under drifts of mud and debris, including overturned cars and chunks of concrete, which rise up to four meters high. Rescuers struggled to bring in heavy equipment as floods washed away or blocked roads leading to the area.
Libya’s eastern-based parliament, the House of Representatives, on Thursday approved an emergency budget of 10 billion Libyan dinars – or about $2 billion – to deal with the floods and help those affected.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE KILLED?
On Thursday, the Libyan Red Crescent said 11,300 people had been killed and another 10,100 missing.
However, local authorities have suggested the death toll could be much higher than expected.
In comments Thursday to Saudi television channel Al Arabia, Derna Mayor Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi said the count could reach 20,000 given the number of neighborhoods destroyed.
The storm also killed around 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, the health minister said.
The dead in eastern Libya include at least 84 Egyptians, whose remains were transferred to their home country on Wednesday. More than 70 people came from a village in the southern province of Beni Suef. Libyan media also said dozens of Sudanese migrants were killed in the disaster.
IS AID REACHING SURVIVORS?
Floods have displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, and several thousand more have been forced from their homes in other eastern cities, according to the report.
Flooding has damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, hampering the arrival of international relief teams and humanitarian aid. Local authorities have been able to clear some roads and humanitarian convoys have been able to enter the city in recent days.
The United Nations humanitarian office has launched an emergency appeal for $71.4 million to meet the urgent needs of the 250,000 most affected Libyans. The office, known as OCHA, estimates that around 884,000 people in five provinces live in areas directly affected by the rains and floods.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it had provided 6,000 body bags to local authorities, along with medical, food and other supplies distributed to hard-hit communities.
International aid began arriving earlier this week in Benghazi, 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of Derna. Several countries sent aid and relief teams, including neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Italy on Thursday dispatched a military ship carrying humanitarian aid and two navy helicopters for search and rescue operations.
President Joe Biden said the United States would send money to humanitarian organizations and coordinate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.
Associated Press journalist Samy Magdy contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt. Associated Press reporter Jack Jeffery contributed to this report from London.
This story has been updated to correct the name of Derna’s mayor. This is Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi, not Abdel-Raham al-Ghaithi.