Libya flood deaths feared to be up to 20,000 in Derna

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TAKNIS, Libya — Up to 20,000 are feared dead in Libya’s devastated east on Thursday with search and relief efforts ongoing after the coast was pounded by Storm Daniel, submerging neighborhoods with muddied waters and littering the area with corpses.

Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, mayor of Derna, which was hardest hit by the storm, told the Saudi channel al-Arabiya that he believed the number of dead was between 18,000 and 20,000, “based on the number of neighborhoods destroyed.”

Efforts now are focused on combing through the disaster zone to pull out the estimated thousands of bodies of missing residents.

Search teams combed streets, wrecked buildings and the ocean for bodies in Derna, Libya which was devastated by deadly flooding on Sept. 11, 2023. (Video: AP)

See why Libya’s floods were so deadly in maps and videos

Addressing the international community, Osama Hammad, prime minister of the eastern-based government in this divided nation, said the area is in dire need of specialists to retrieve casualties, as fears grow that the large number of decaying bodies could have severe health effects. “The area needs to be closed off completely, confined completely,” he told Libyan TV channel al-Masar in the early hours of Thursday.

“There are conflicts in the number … of deaths, but what matters is that the deaths number in the thousands,” said Ahmed Zouiten, the Libya representative from the World Health Organization. Speaking to TV channel al-Hurra late on Wednesday night, he said the WHO’s count of corpses recovered so far was 3,460.

The top priority right now, he emphasized, was extracting all the bodies and burying them. Three hospitals are completely out of service, and half of the remaining ones are only partially operative.

“This disaster is of mythic proportions,” he said somberly. “A disaster by all measures. Now, the retrieval of the corpses is important, as is burying the corpses before they disintegrate … and cause some environmental issues.”

There are also “tremendous” numbers of sick people who have been displaced and are in immediate need of medical attention, he added.

Bodies ‘everywhere’ in Libyan city after floods; thousands still missing

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it had distributed 6,000 body bags to help authorities extend dignified treatment to the dead. Yann Fridez, head of the ICRC’s Libya delegation, said in a statement that a wave approximately 23 feet (7 meters) high “wiped out buildings and washed infrastructure into the sea.”

Roads have been seriously degraded, the statement added, hindering humanitarian efforts to reach the flood-hit east. Unexploded ordnance and abandoned munition stores in Derna also pose a threat to those in the city.

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said the scale of the tragedy was avoidable if there had been proper early warning services in place. No evacuation orders were issued ahead of the storm despite its known severity.

Had there been normal operating services in Libya, “they could have issued a warning and also the emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people, and we could have avoided most of the human casualties,” Petteri Taalas, the head of the WMO, told reporters.

Derna’s disaster came when floodwaters poured down the hills surrounding the city, burst through two dams and washed away about a quarter of the inhabited area, leaving much of it still underwater days later.

The scale of the disaster was apparent already some 85 miles outside Derna where the landscape was marked by stagnant floodwaters clogging fields. Cars leaving the flood zone were caked in red silt as dozens of aid trucks and excavators from across the country headed the opposite direction into the affected region.

For years, the country has been divided between two warring rivals: a government in the east and one in the west. After the flood, the United Nations-backed western government said it had dispatched convoys of aid to the east. It instructed a cruise ship to moor at Derna port for at least 60 days to provide shelter for rescue teams working in the area.

Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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