The death toll resulting from devastating floods in a single Libyan city has surged past 1,500, as reported by a minister who recently visited the eastern port of Derna, according to a statement made to the BBC. Hisham Chkiouat, a member of the eastern-based government, expressed his shock at the extent of the disaster, likening it to a tsunami. Derna, home to approximately 100,000 residents, now lies submerged following the collapse of two dams and four bridges. Additionally, the Red Crescent reports that up to 10,000 people are missing in the aftermath of the flooding, which was unleashed by Storm Daniel.
The impact of this catastrophe has not been confined to Derna alone; several other eastern cities, including Benghazi, Soussa, and Al-Marj, have also been severely affected by the storm that struck on Sunday. Minister Chkiouat, who is part of the eastern government’s emergency response committee, stated that the failure of one of the dams to the south of Derna dragged significant portions of the city into the sea, resulting in the destruction of entire neighborhoods.
The tragedy is further compounded by the fact that the dam in question had not received proper maintenance for a considerable period. Before the storm hit, authorities in Derna had implemented an overnight curfew as a precautionary measure, instructing residents to stay in their homes.
Water engineering experts interviewed by the BBC have suggested that the upper dam, located around 12 kilometers from the city, likely failed first, with its waters cascading down the river valley toward the second dam, situated approximately one kilometer from the low-lying areas of Derna that were subsequently inundated.
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Survivor Raja Sassi recounted the horrifying moment when the dam burst, saying, “At first, we just thought it was heavy rain, but at midnight we heard a huge explosion, and it was the dam bursting.”
Libyan journalist Noura Eljerbi, currently based in Tunisia, expressed her relief after learning that approximately 35 of her relatives residing in the same apartment block in Derna had managed to escape the catastrophe. Nevertheless, the city has suffered extensive damage, with a quarter of it reported as having disappeared.
Tamer Ramadan, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Libya, emphasized the enormity of the death toll, noting that the number of missing persons had reached a staggering 10,000. He added that their teams on the ground were still assessing the situation, and a definite number had not yet been determined.
The unusual magnitude of the storm is highlighted by the fact that Bayda, a town located about 165 kilometers west of Derna, experienced 414mm of rain within a 24-hour period during Storm Daniel. September typically sees dry weather in northeastern Libya, and the recent downpour accounted for a significant portion of Bayda’s average annual rainfall.
The chaos in Libya, which has persisted since the overthrow and death of Col Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has hampered rescue efforts in the face of this natural disaster. With the country divided between an interim, internationally recognized government in Tripoli and another administration in the east, the various authorities struggle to coordinate an effective response.
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However, efforts are being made to provide assistance. The eastern administration has expressed its willingness to accept aid from the government in Tripoli. The United States, through special envoy Richard Norton, is coordinating aid delivery with UN partners and Libyan authorities. Several other countries, including Egypt, Germany, Iran, Italy, Qatar, and Turkey, have also pledged to send or have already dispatched aid.
Derna, situated about 250 kilometers east of Benghazi along the coast, has a tumultuous history. It was once a stronghold for militants from the Islamic State group following Gaddafi’s fall, although they were eventually ousted by the Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to Gen Khalifa Haftar, who is aligned with the eastern administration. Gen Haftar has called for urgent financial support from all official bodies to facilitate reconstruction and the restoration of essential services in the wake of the disaster.
Some experts have pointed to failures in rebuilding and maintaining infrastructure in Derna after years of conflict as contributing to the high death toll. Economic expert Mohammed Ahmed has noted that security chaos and inadequate monitoring of dam safety measures by Libyan authorities played a role in the catastrophe.