The death toll from floods in the eastern Libyan town of Derna has reached more than 5,000 and is expected to rise further, a local health official said on Wednesday, as authorities struggling to get aid to the coastal city where thousands are still missing and tens of thousands more remain unaccounted for. homeless.
Aid workers who managed to reach the town, which was cut off Sunday evening when flash floods washed away most access roads, described the devastation in the center of the town, where search and rescue teams searched destroyed apartment buildings for bodies and recovered bodies floating offshore.
“The bodies are everywhere, in the houses, in the streets, at sea. Everywhere you go you find dead men, women and children,” Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, said by telephone. from Derna. “Entire families have been lost. »
Flooding caused significant damage to infrastructure in the coastal town of Derna and displaced at least 30,000 people, the United Nations migration agency said. The damage is so extensive that the town is almost inaccessible to aid workers, the International Organization for Migration said.
Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly floods in many eastern cities, but the worst hit was Derna. As the storm hit the coast Sunday evening, residents said they heard loud explosions as dams outside the town collapsed. Floodwaters poured into the Wadi Derna, a river that flows from the mountains through the city and into the sea.
More than half of the bodies collected Monday had been buried in mass graves in Derna, eastern Libya’s Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel said. Rescue teams worked day and night to recover many more bodies scattered in the streets and under the rubble. Some bodies were recovered at sea.
The surprising devastation highlighted the intensity of the storm, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east and the other in the west, resulting in neglect of infrastructure in many areas.
Flooding has damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna. Of seven roads leading to the city, only two are accessible from its southern edge. Bridges over the Derna River that connect the eastern and western parts of the city have also collapsed, according to the United Nations migration agency. The destruction hampered the arrival of international relief teams and the delivery of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged.
“The town of Derna was submerged by 7 meter high waves which destroyed everything in their path,” Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, told the France24 channel. “The human toll is enormous. »
Local rescuers, including soldiers, civil servants, volunteers and residents, continued to search the rubble for the dead. They also used inflatable boats and helicopters to recover bodies from water and inaccessible areas.
“It’s a disaster in every sense of the word,” a survivor who lost 11 family members told a local television station as a group of rescuers tried to calm him down. The television station did not identify the survivor.
Ahmed Abdalla, a survivor who joined the search and rescue efforts, said they were dumping the bodies in the courtyard of a local hospital before taking them to be buried in mass graves at the city’s only intact cemetery. .
“The situation is indescribable. Entire families died in this disaster. Some were washed away by the sea,” Abdalla said by telephone from Derna.
Bulldozers have been working over the past two days to repair and clear roads to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and heavy equipment urgently needed for search and rescue operations. Derna is 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Benghazi, where international aid began arriving on Tuesday.
Libya’s neighbors Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have sent relief teams and humanitarian aid. President Joe Biden also said the United States was sending emergency funds to humanitarian organizations and coordinating with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.
Mohammed Abu-Lamousha, a spokesman for eastern Libya’s interior ministry, put the death toll in Derna at more than 5,300 on Tuesday, according to the official news agency. Dozens of other people were reported killed in other towns in eastern Libya, he added.
Authorities transferred hundreds of bodies to morgues in nearby towns. In the city of Tobruk, 169 kilometers east of Derna, the morgue of the Tobruk Medical Center received more than 300 bodies of people killed in the Derna floods. Among them were 84 Egyptians, according to a death list obtained by The Associated Press.
Dozens of bodies of Egyptians killed in the floods have been repatriated to their home country. Most of the dead came from one village, El-Sharif, in the southern province of Beni Suef. They were buried on Wednesday morning following a mass funeral attended by hundreds of villagers. Four of the dead were buried in other funerals in the Nile Delta province of Beheira.
Among the dead were the family of Saleh Sariyeh, 60, a Palestinian from the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon whose home was swept away by floods, his nephew Mohammed Sariyeh told The Associated Press .
Mohammed Sariyeh said his uncle had lived for decades in Derna with his wife, Sanaa Jammal, and two daughters, Walaa, 27, and Hoda, 25, and that they were all killed on Monday. He said friends called him from Libya to tell the family that his uncle’s apartment was in a downtown building that had been swept away by the storm.
The four were buried in Derna, Mohammed Sariyeh said, adding that due to the ongoing fighting in Ein el-Hilweh, the family in Lebanon will not receive condolences in the camp.
At least 10,000 people were still missing in the city, according to Tamer Ramadan, Libya envoy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He said 40,000 people were displaced in Derna and other flood-hit towns in eastern Libya.
Known for its white-painted houses and palm groves, Derna is about 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. It is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, an ally of the eastern Libyan government. The rival government in western 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 years of chaos following the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.