In a frightful spectacle of nature’s raw power, torrential floods wreaked havoc on the Mediterranean city of Derna, Libya, claiming the lives of more than 5,100 individuals. The calamity occurred when the violent Mediterranean storm Daniel prompted a massive flash flood, following the rupture of two dams cradled in the mountains above Derna.
Entrapped between the steep mountains and the sea, with only the precarious winding routes serving as a lifeline, Derna has been compelled to bear the brunt of the disaster with little outside help. Access roads have perished under the storm, transforming the city into an island of chaos and despair.
Rescue workers brave enough to venture into the city paint a grim picture, “Bodies everywhere – in homes, streets, and even the sea. Whole families wiped out, leaving behind ghostly neighbourhoods,” urged Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi corresponding via a telephone call from Derna.
The wrath of the storm was felt most acutely in Derna’s core where the roaring waters of Wadi Derna river, fuelled by the collapsed dams, rampaged through the city center, tearing up entire city blocks in their wake. According to emergency officials, close to a quarter of the city had been swept away, reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland.
Witnesses reported waves cresting at a staggering 23 feet, leaving even multistory buildings under water. Mohammed Derna, a local teacher, recounted the terrifying experience of watching people being swept away from the safety of his apartment rooftop.
As the disaster continued to unfold, rescue teams navigated through the wreckage, retrieving bodies from the shattered remains of apartment buildings and from the merciless Mediterranean Sea. The counting of the dead is far from over, with Ossama Ali, an eastern Libyan ambulance center spokesman, estimating death tolls in Derna to be over 5,300.
Estimations elicit fears of an even larger number of missing individuals, around 9,000, although advances in reestablishing communication lines could bring some relief. The floods also displaced a reported 30,000 people in Derna, marking another dire symptom of the crisis.
The storm, while ravaging Derna the most, did not spare neighboring towns of Bayda, Susa, and Marj. Search and rescue operations in Bayda alone uncovered 150 bodies from the sea, further adding to the rising death toll.
The severity of the flooding highlighted not only the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability, a nation mired in political discord and weak infrastructure. The eastern and western regions have seen a gaping divide in governance which has directly resulted in the neglect of several areas.
In the wake of this large-scale disaster, international aid has begun pouring into Derna, with efforts being bolstered by Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, the UAE, the UK, and Germany. Even the US has pledged monetary support to relief organizations and vowed to collaborate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.
However, countless loss remains at the forefront. A single southern Egyptian village, El-Sharif, lost more than 70 of its inhabitants due to the Derna disaster, testifying that Libya’s desperate clasp on stability draws workers from all over the region. The tale of Saleh Sariyeh, a Palestinian from Lebanon who settled in Derna, encapsulates the personal tragedy – he, his wife, and two daughters were all killed when their home was washed away.
The disaster unveils not just the complex geopolitics of Libya, but also the vulnerabilities of cities like Derna. Once a hub for extremist groups following the NATO-backed collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, Derna now lies ravaged under the rule of military commander Khalifa Hifter, displaying the exhausting transformation of a war-weary city.