The coastal city of Derna, Libya, now mourns the loss of 11,300 lives, a death toll that has dramatically risen as search operations are ongoing in the aftermath of a devastating flood, according to the Libyan Red Crescent. As the turmoil continues, an estimated 10,100 individuals are reportedly still missing in the Mediterranean city.
The flood, which occurred following the breaching of two dams amid intense rainfall, not only caused an unprecedented loss of lives but also highlighted the city’s vulnerability. Derna’s distress began on Sunday evening when the unsuspecting populace was caught off-guard as the floodwaters swept through entire families and reveled the city’s structural inadequacy. These shortcomings are tied to continuous conflict in the oil-rich nation since the 2011 uprising that displaced long-term dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Casualties of this scale were avoidable, as stated by World Meteorological Organization head Petteri Taalas. He underlined the lack of an operational meteorological service that could have issued warnings in time for the emergency management authorities to evacuate people, thus preventing such a catastrophic loss of life.
Ironically, the National Meteorological Center had issued warnings regarding the flooding 72 hours prior, notifying all governmental bodies via email as well as through media channels. Local officials warned the populace of the imminent storm and proceeded to issue evacuation orders for coastal areas due to a feared surge from the sea. However, the catastrophic failure of the two dams was not foreseen.
The severity of the disaster reflects not only the ferocity of the storm but Libya’s state of vulnerability. Libya, an oil-rich nation, has suffered from power struggles between rival governments over the past decade, resulting in gross negligence of critical infrastructure developments. Highlighting this is the collapse of two dams outside Derna, built in the 1970s, whose maintenance was overlooked despite the allocation of funds for this purpose in 2012 and 2013.
During a recent cabinet meeting, Libya’s prime minister, Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, acknowledged these maintenance issues and has since urged the Public Prosecutor to expedite the investigation into the dams’ collapse.
These tragic occurrences prompted a rare moment of unity within the government, with agencies countrywide rallying to provide aid for the affected areas. The government of eastern Libya, based in Tobruk, took on the leading role in relief efforts, with the Tripoli-based western government allocating significant funds for reconstruction in Derna and other eastern towns. Additionally, humanitarian aid was dispatched via an armed group from Tripoli.
The city of Derna has begun the somber process of burying its casualties, the majority of whom have been placed in mass graves on the outskirts of the city, where search and rescue teams continue their efforts amidst the wreckage.
The enormity of the disaster is starkly reflected in the number of people who have been reported dead or missing. On Thursday, the Libyan Red Crescent stated a total of 11,300 deaths with an additional 10,100 individuals reported missing. Local officials have suggested that these figures could rise significantly, given the damage across several neighborhoods.
This disaster has also impacted other parts of eastern Libya, with around 170 casualties reported in towns such as Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz, and Marj. International casualties have also been reported, with at least 84 Egyptians, primarily from the southern province of Beni Suef, counted among the deceased, while dozens of Sudanese migrants were also among the fatalities.
The detrimental flood has left an estimated 30,000 people home displaced in Derna alone, while access to the city has been heavily disrupted, impeding the delivery of international rescue operations and humanitarian aid. Despite the difficulties, some routes have been cleared enabling relief convoys to gradually enter the city.
International aid from several nations has started to reach the flood-affected areas, notably from nearby countries including Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. Italy has dispatched a naval vessel carrying humanitarian relief and helicopters to facilitate search and rescue operations. Beyond the region, support has also been presented by the United States, with President Joe Biden assuring that the country would contribute financial aid and collaborate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to furnish additional aid.