Published: 15:40, September 17, 2023 | Updated: 17:30, September 17, 2023
Flood-hit Libyan city faces long recovery as toll tops 11,300
By Reuters

Two men hug as people look for survivors in the flooded city of Derna, Libya, Sept 13, 2023. For many Libyans, the disastrous flooding that killed more than 11,000 people have fostered a sense of unity. (PHOTO / AP)

DERNA, Libya - Residents of Derna in eastern Libya were counting their losses from a flood that devastated swathes of the coastal city as the death toll reached over 11,000.

At least 11,300 people have died and another 10,100 are missing from the coastal city one week after Storm Daniel hit northeastern Libya, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on Saturday.

An estimated 170 people have been killed as a result of the flooding elsewhere in the country, and more than 40,000 people have been displaced, the UN report said, citing the latest data from International Organizaton for Migration. Figures are expected to rise as search-and-rescue efforts continue to look for survivors.

Entire districts of Derna, with an estimated population of at least 120,000, were swept away or buried in brown mud after two dams south of the city broke on Sunday night unleashing torrents of floodwater down a usually dry riverbed

Central Street, once a focus of economic activity in Derna lined with shops, was largely deserted, the silence broken only by the sound of the wind whistling past mangled buildings as a few people sat disconsolate in the road, sipping coffee and surveying the damage.

"The first thing I'm afraid of is that this will take a long time," said 44-year-old teacher Tarek Faheem al-Hasadi, whose wife and five young grandchildren were killed in the flood. He and his son survived by climbing onto the roof.

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"This needs persistence and I'm afraid that the support that is coming is temporary," he said between tears, standing guard in front his ruined home, but adding that he was determined not to leave the area.

A three-storey building standing opposite had been swept 60 meters (200 feet) down the road by the floodwaters, Hasadi said.

Rescuers and relatives search for bodies of the flood victims at the Corniche of the city of Derna, Libya, Sept 15, 2023. (PHOTO / AP)

At Derna's seafront, where a wrecked car could be seen perched on top of concrete storm breakers and driftwood was strewn across muddy pools, diggers worked to clear the path for rescue teams and a helicopter scanned the sea for bodies.

Entire districts of Derna, with an estimated population of at least 120,000, were swept away or buried in brown mud after two dams south of the city broke on Sunday night unleashing torrents of floodwater down a usually dry riverbed.

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"The situation is very, very tragic," said Qais, a rescue worker from Tunisia at the seafront who only gave his first name. "We have never seen such damage caused by water."

More than 450 bodies had been recovered in the past three days from the seashore, including 10 from under the rubble, said Kamal Al-Siwi, the official in charge of missing people.

"The work is ongoing and is very, very, very complicated," he told Reuters. "This operation in my opinion, needs months and years."

Mass graves

The World Health Organization said on Saturday it had flown in enough emergency aid to reach nearly 250,000 people affected by Storm Daniel across eastern Libya, including essential medicines, surgery supplies and body bags for the deceased.

Saudi Arabia announced the departure of its first aid flight to Libya and Russia said the third of its aid flights had arrived carrying a mobile hospital.

An Italian naval ship docked in Derna with supplies including tents, blankets, water pumps and tractors, Italy's Embassy in Libya said, posting photos of smaller vessels bringing equipment ashore.

More than 1,000 people have been buried in mass graves, according to the United Nations, drawing warnings from aid groups about the risk of contaminating water or causing mental distress to families of the deceased.

The head of Libya's National Centre for Disease Control, Hayder Al-Sayah, said there was little risk from corpses unless they were carrying diseases, but that recorded cases of diarrhoea had risen to 150 from 55 on Friday due to people drinking polluted water.

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Derna has been hit hard by the turmoil and conflict in Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi during a popular uprising in 2011.

It was controlled for several years by jihadist militants before forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) besieged and took control of the city in 2019.

Infrastructure across Libya has been degraded amid the political paralysis of the past decade, and experts had warned that Derna faced potential disaster if maintenance work was not carried out on the dams outside the city.

Libya's continuing political divisions, with rival administrations and parliaments in the east and west, could hamper the aid effort.