Published: 10:48, September 14, 2023 | Updated: 10:50, September 14, 2023
Catastrophic Libya flood kills thousands, relatives search for survivors
By Reuters

A general view of the city of Derna is seen on Sept 12, 2023. Mediterranean storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that broke dams and swept away entire neighborhoods in multiple coastal town. (PHOTO / AP)

DERNA, Libya - Residents of the devastated Libyan city of Derna desperately searched for missing relatives on Wednesday and rescue workers appealed for more body bags, after a catastrophic flood that killed thousands of people and swept many out to sea.

Swathes of the Mediterranean city were obliterated by a torrent of water unleashed by a powerful storm that swept down a usually dry riverbed on Sunday night, bursting dams above the city. Multi-storey buildings collapsed with sleeping families inside.

Officials have put the number of missing at 10,000. The UN aid agency OCHA said the figure was at least 5,000.

Usama Al Husadi, a 52-year-old driver, has been searching for his wife and five children since the disaster. "I went by foot searching for them ... I went to all hospitals and schools but no luck," he told Reuters, weeping with his head in his hands.

Husadi, who had been working the night of the storm, dialed his wife's phone number once again. It was switched off. "We lost at least 50 members from my father’s family, between missing and dead," he said.

The beach was littered with clothes, toys, furniture, shoes and other possessions swept out of homes by the torrent.

The devastation is clear from high points above Derna, where the densely populated city center, built along a seasonal riverbed, was now a wide, flat crescent of earth with stretches of muddy water gleaming in the sun

Streets were covered in deep mud and strewn with uprooted trees and hundreds of wrecked cars, many flipped on their sides or their roofs. One car was wedged on the second-floor balcony of a gutted building.

"I survived with my wife but I lost my sister," Mohamed Mohsen Bujmila, a 41-year-old engineer, said. "My sister lives downtown where most of the destruction happened. We found the bodies of her husband and son and buried them."

He also found the bodies of two strangers in his apartment.

As he spoke an Egyptian search-and-rescue team nearby recovered the body of his neighbor. "This is Aunt Khadija, may God grant her heaven," Bujmila said.

The devastation is clear from high points above Derna, where the densely populated city center, built along a seasonal riverbed, was now a wide, flat crescent of earth with stretches of muddy water gleaming in the sun. Buildings were swept away.

Death tolls given by officials so far have varied, but all are in the thousands.

Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya, told Reuters more than 5,300 dead had been counted so far, and said the number was likely to increase significantly and might even double. The "sea is constantly dumping dozens of bodies", he said by phone.

Tariq Kharaz, a spokesperson for the eastern authorities, said 3,200 bodies had been recovered, and 1,100 of them had yet to be identified.

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Derna Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television the estimated the number of deaths in the city could reach 18,000 to 20,000 based on the number of districts destroyed by the flood.

Search and rescue

Rescue teams have arrived from Egypt, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, and Qatar, al-Ghaithi said.

"We actually need teams specialized in recovering bodies," he said. "I fear that the city will be infected with an epidemic due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water."

Türkiye is also sending a ship carrying equipment to set up two field hospitals and 148 medical staff to help with the rescue efforts.

The UN migration agency, the International Organization for Migration, said at least 30,000 people had been displaced in Derna.

"We need bags for the bodies," Lutfi al-Misrati, the director of the search team, told Al Jazeera.

Rescue operations are complicated by deep political fractures in the country of 7 million people that has lacked a strong central government and been at war on-and-off since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

An internationally recognized Government of National Unity is based in Tripoli, in the west, while a parallel administration operates in the east, including Derna.

READ MORE: Death toll of clashes in Libya's Tripoli rises to 55

Libya's Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah called the floods an unprecedented catastrophe. Libya's Presidential Council head Mohammed al-Menfi has called for national unity.

The bodies of dozens of Egyptian migrants who were among the victims of the storm in Libya arrived on Wednesday in Beni Suef, about 110km south of Cairo, Egyptian media reported.