Catastrophic Flooding in Eastern Libya: Death Toll Could Exceed 5,000, Thousands More Unaccounted For

by Gabriel Martinez
Flood disaster in Derna

On Tuesday, emergency responders recovered in excess of 1,500 bodies from the ruins of Derna, a city in eastern Libya, following disastrous flooding. Fears are mounting that the final death toll could exceed 5,000 as floodwaters have obliterated dams and wiped out entire districts in the city.

The unprecedented damage and loss of life caused by the Mediterranean storm Daniel highlight not just the storm’s ferocity but also Libya’s heightened vulnerability due to over a decade of political unrest and instability. The nation remains divided between two competing governments in the east and west, leading to significant neglect of critical infrastructure.

Aid only began arriving in Derna more than a day and a half after the calamity unfolded. The flooding has rendered many routes into the coastal city, with a population of around 89,000, impassable or destroyed.

Disturbing images have emerged of numerous bodies shrouded in blankets at a local hospital’s yard, while another depicts a communal grave overwhelmed with corpses. According to the Health Minister of eastern Libya, over 1,500 bodies had been recovered by Tuesday evening, and half of them had already been interred.

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Mohammed Abu-Lamousha, a spokesperson for eastern Libya’s Interior Ministry, reported a death toll surpassing 5,000 in Derna alone. Earlier estimates from Derna’s ambulance authority had reported 2,300 deaths. Tamer Ramadan, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Libya envoy, stated that the final tally is expected to be higher. Ramadan, speaking from Tunisia at a United Nations briefing in Geneva, estimated that at least 10,000 individuals remain unaccounted for and more than 40,000 have been displaced.

The calamitous circumstances in Libya have drawn comparisons to the recent deadly earthquake in Morocco, as mentioned by Ramadan.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed solidarity with the Libyan populace and reassured that the United Nations is actively coordinating with local and global partners to expedite crucial humanitarian relief to affected regions, according to U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Residents reported hearing loud explosions as dams near the city collapsed under the storm’s pressure, triggering flash floods down Wadi Derna, a river that flows through the city into the Mediterranean Sea. The deluge left a trail of devastation, washing away neighborhoods and causing structural damage to multiple-story buildings. Cars were lifted by floodwaters and deposited in precarious piles.

Libya’s National Meteorological Center had issued an early alert about Storm Daniel, categorized as an “extreme weather event,” 72 hours prior to its landfall. Despite these warnings, the question of whether the dams failed due to poor maintenance or because they were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of rain remains unanswered. Climate scientist Karsten Haustein posits that rising water surface temperatures may have intensified the storm’s impact.

Local governance has historically disregarded Derna, leading to delays in essential maintenance efforts. The city’s strategic importance has also made it a target for various militant groups, and it was only reclaimed in 2019 after months of arduous fighting led by military commander Khalifa Hifter, the strongman of eastern Libya.

Both eastern and western Libyan governments are backed by strong militias and foreign powers, exacerbating internal rivalries. Nonetheless, the immediate response to the catastrophe saw a temporary bridging of the divide. The western government in Tripoli dispatched medical supplies and has allocated significant funds for rebuilding the devastated areas. International aid has also started pouring in from countries like Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, France, and Italy.

The logistics of delivering aid to Derna remain complex due to the condition of the local infrastructure. Local officials are advocating for a maritime corridor for faster aid and equipment delivery.

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced the provision of emergency funds and coordination with Libyan authorities and the U.N. to offer further assistance.

Elsewhere in eastern Libya, towns like Bayda, Susa, Marj, and Shahatt have also been adversely affected. Hundreds of families have been displaced and are currently taking refuge in government buildings and schools.

Northeast Libya, known for its fertile lands, is one of the country’s greenest regions with some of the highest average annual rainfalls, according to the World Bank.

Contributions to this report were made by Big Big News writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Flood disaster in Derna, Libya

What happened in Derna, Libya?

Eastern Libya, particularly the city of Derna, was severely affected by flooding caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel. Emergency workers have found over 1,500 bodies, and estimates suggest the death toll could exceed 5,000.

What are the contributing factors to the scale of this disaster?

The disaster’s magnitude is due to a combination of the storm’s intensity and the lack of preparedness due to years of infrastructure neglect. The country’s division between rival governments in the east and west has led to inconsistent investment in crucial infrastructure like dams.

How has the international community responded?

The United Nations is coordinating with local and national partners to provide urgent humanitarian aid. Various countries like Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have sent aid and rescue teams. Germany, France, and Italy have also committed to sending assistance.

What is the status of the missing and displaced people?

Tamer Ramadan, the Libya envoy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, stated that at least 10,000 people are still missing. More than 40,000 individuals have been displaced due to the floods.

What about the condition of the dams near Derna?

The floods were exacerbated when dams near Derna burst. The root cause for the failure of these dams remains under investigation, but initial insights suggest either poor maintenance or the sheer volume of rain.

Are other areas apart from Derna affected?

Yes, other towns in eastern Libya such as Bayda, Susa, Marj, and Shahatt have also been impacted by the floods, resulting in fatalities and extensive property damage.

What steps are being taken to provide immediate relief?

Local emergency responders are actively engaged in rescue operations, including digging through rubble to recover bodies and using inflatable boats for the same purpose. Both eastern and western Libyan governments are sending aid, and international aid is also in transit.

What has the United States done in response to the crisis?

President Joe Biden announced that the United States is sending emergency funds to relief organizations and is coordinating with Libyan authorities and the U.N. to provide additional support.

How has this disaster exposed Libya’s existing vulnerabilities?

The crisis has highlighted the impact of years of neglect and division in the country. The lack of maintenance and preparedness, coupled with the existing political divisions, has greatly exacerbated the situation.

Was there any prior warning before the disaster?

Libya’s National Meteorological Center had issued early warnings for the “extreme weather event” 72 hours prior and had notified all governmental authorities urging them to take preventive measures.

More about Flood disaster in Derna, Libya

  • Emergency Response Efforts in Derna, Libya
  • Overview of Mediterranean Storm Daniel
  • The Political Divide in Libya and Its Impact on Infrastructure
  • United Nations’ Statement on the Libyan Crisis
  • International Aid to Flood-Stricken Libya
  • Status of Missing and Displaced People in Libya
  • Infrastructure Challenges in Libya
  • U.S. Response to the Libyan Flood Disaster
  • Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events in Libya
  • Libya’s National Meteorological Center’s Early Warnings

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MikeH September 13, 2023 - 1:09 am

Anyone know how to help? like seriously, sitting here and doing nothing feels wrong.

NancyC September 13, 2023 - 3:19 am

It’s not just a Libyan problem, it’s a human problem. We all need to take action and help.

PaulW September 13, 2023 - 6:21 am

What’s the UN doing? They need to step up their game big time, so many lives at stake here.

AliceB September 13, 2023 - 12:14 pm

was there any warning? and if there was, why wasn’t anything done?!

EmilyQ September 13, 2023 - 1:01 pm

So many people missing and dead… Heartbreaking. Infrastructure is key ppl, this tragedy shows it.

TimJ September 13, 2023 - 3:57 pm

The political divide is literally costing lives now. just unbelievable.

SaraR September 13, 2023 - 5:18 pm

I’ve got family in Libya and this just hits too close to home. Why wasn’t more done to prevent this??

JohnDoe September 13, 2023 - 8:50 pm

This is devastating. Can’t believe how bad the situation is in Libya, with the government being so divided, it’s no wonder there’s lack of prep for this kinda disaster.

GeorgeK September 13, 2023 - 8:55 pm

State neglect is evident here. And now thousands pay the price. terrible.

LizM September 13, 2023 - 8:59 pm

you’ve got to wonder how much climate change is contributing to these extreme weather events, right?


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