At least 10,000 people are missing and around 3,000 feared dead in Libya after a huge storm triggered flash floods that burst dams, swept away buildings and left bodies “lying everywhere”.
Destruction came to the city of Derna, and other parts of eastern Libya, on Sunday night when Storm Daniel – which had already caused deadly flooding in southern Europe – pounded the coast.
Loud explosions were heard as dams collapsed, unleashing flash floods down Wadi Derna, a seasonal river running from the mountains through the middle of the city and into the sea. The wall of water sweeping through Derna “erased everything in its path,” said one resident, Ahmed Abdalla.
About a quarter of the city has been wiped out, and it remains entirely cut off without electricity or communications, according to early reports.
A health minister in the administration that controls the east of Libya said more than 3,000 people were believed dead. “The number of missing people is in the thousands, and the number of dead is expected to reach 10,000,” Othman Abdul Jalil told Al-Massar TV.
“The situation is catastrophic,” he said. “The bodies are still lying on the ground in many parts [of the city]. Hospitals are filled with bodies. And there are areas we have yet to reach.”
Authorities estimated earlier that as many as 2,300 may have died in Derna alone, with many of the victims swept away when the dams burst.
Emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents, were digging through rubble to recover the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water. Excavators and other equipment have yet to arrive.
Mr Abdul Jalil said the city was inaccessible and bodies were scattered all over. “The situation was more significant and worse than we expected. An international intervention is needed,” he said.
Since a 2011 uprising toppled Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and one in the west, each backed by different militias and foreign governments. The conflict has left the country with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure.
The deluge erased entire residential areas along the Wadi Derna. Multistorey buildings that once stood well back from the river were partially collapsed into the mud.
The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead and the main hospital was flooded, forcing the evacuation of patients.
Other towns that suffered, included Susa, Marj and Shahatt, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in the city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.
Georgette Gagnon, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said reports showed that dozens of villages and towns were “severely affected ... with widespread flooding, damage to infrastructure, and loss of life”.
“I am deeply saddened by the severe impact of [Storm] Daniel on the country ... I call on all local, national, and international partners to join hands to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the people in eastern Libya,” she tweeted.
Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates were among those that said they would send humanitarian assistance and teams to help with search and rescue efforts. The US said it was contacting the United Nations and Libyan authorities on how to deliver aid to the most affected areas.
Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi convened his military commanders on Tuesday to arrange urgent assistance, promising to deploy military equipment and personnel in coordination with eastern Libyan forces.
As the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, I am deeply saddened by the severe impact of Hurricane Daniel on the country and have tasked an emergency response team to prepare to support local authorities and partners in the region. pic.twitter.com/yQptqVP3s1
— Georgette Gagnon - جورجيت غانيون (@ggagnonn) September 11, 2023
Storm Daniel, which first brought devastating floods to central Greece, was “phenomenally powerful”, climate experts said. It gained strength as it moved south before making landfall in Benghazi on Sunday afternoon.
Such Mediterranean hurricanes, or “Medicanes”, get stronger as they feed on warm waters, a situation made worse in recent years by the man-made climate crisis.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters