Survivors of a flood that swept away the centre of the Libyan city of Derna picked through the ruins on Thursday in search of loved ones from among thousands of dead and missing, while authorities feared an outbreak of disease from rotting bodies.
A torrent unleashed by a powerful storm burst dams on Sunday night and hurtled down a seasonal riverbed that bisects the city, washing multi-story buildings into the sea with sleeping families inside.
Confirmed death tolls given by officials so far have varied, but all are in the thousands, with thousands more on lists of the missing. Derna Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi said deaths in the city could reach 18,000 to 20,000, based on the extent of the damage.
“We actually need teams specialized in recovering bodies,” he told Reuters in Derna. “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.”
Usama Al Husadi, a 52-year-old driver, had 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, dialled 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.
Wali Eddin Mohamed Adam, 24, a Sudanese brick factory worker living on Derna’s outskirts, had awakened to the boom of the water on the night of the storm and rushed to the city centre to find it was gone. Nine of his fellow workers were lost, and around 15 others had lost their families, he said.
“All were swept away by the valley into the sea,” he said. “May God have mercy upon them them and grant them heaven.”
No warning system
Rescue work is hindered by the political fractures in a country of 7 million people, at war on-and-off and with no government holding nationwide reach since a NATO-backed uprising toppled Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
An internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) is based in Tripoli, in the west. A parallel administration operates in the east, under control of the Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, who failed to capture Tripoli in a bloody 14-month siege that unravelled in 2020.
The head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Thursday that many casualties could have been avoided if the divided country had a functional weather service able to issue warnings.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WMO Sec. Gen. Petteri Taalas said Libya’s main challenge in managing the aftermath of floods that have killed thousands was that the governing was “not functioning normally.”
“If they would have been a normally operating meteorological service, they could have issued a warnings,” he said.
“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.”
The Current15:51Dam breaches wash away entire Libyan neighbourhoods
Taalas said WMO had previously been in touch with Libyan authorities to assist them in reforming the meteorological system, but that these efforts had been hampered by security threats.
“Since the security situation in the country is so difficult, it’s difficult to go there and improve the situation,” he said.
A delegation of GNU ministers were expected in Benghazi in the east on Thursday to show solidarity and discuss relief efforts, a rare occurrence since the eastern-based parliament rejected their administration last year.
The devastation was clear from high points above Derna, where the densely populated city centre was now a wide, flat crescent of earth with stretches of muddy water gleaming in the sun.
The beach was littered with clothes, toys, furniture, shoes and other possessions swept out of homes by the torrent. Streets were covered in deep mud and strewn with uprooted trees and hundreds of wrecked cars, many flipped on their sides or roofs. One car was wedged on a gutted building’s second-floor balcony.
“I survived with my wife but I lost my sister,” said Mohamed Mohsen Bujmila, a 41-year-old engineer. “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 neighbour.
“This is Aunt Khadija, may God grant her heaven,” Bujmila