Torrential rain from a storm that swept across the Mediterranean Sea over the weekend caused two dams to burst near Derna, a coastal city in northeastern Libya, killing thousands and washing entire neighborhoods out to sea. At least 10,000 more people were estimated to be missing in Derna and other flooded areas, the head of a government agency said, citing official estimates.
Rescue efforts are underway, but it is unclear how much aid has made it to people. The devastating floods have effectively cut off access to Derna, city officials said. Complicating the rescue effort in Libya is its division between an internationally recognized government based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east.
On Wednesday, Libyan and international search-and-rescue teams braved treacherous roads marred by the flooding in an attempt to reach Derna and the surrounding areas. Survivors were fleeing the disaster zone for neighboring towns.
Here’s what we know about the flooding in Libya.
Storm Daniel moved through the Mediterranean Sea last week, swamping Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria before making its way to Libya, where it battered the coast over the weekend. Heavy rains flooded the eastern part of the country, dousing Shahhat, Al-Bayda, Marj and other towns and displacing more than 34,000 people, aid groups said.
Libyan officials and international aid groups have issued conflicting estimates of the number of dead and missing, reflecting a chaotic situation on the ground in Libya. The Libyan authorities have previously said that more than 5,000 people were believed to have died in the flooding and over 10,000 others were missing.
But in a late-night news conference on Wednesday, the interior minister of the government in eastern Libya, Essam Abu Zeriba, announced that the number of documented dead was more than 2,700 and that more than 2,500 people were reported missing.
In Derna, a city of about 100,000 people, the rain overwhelmed two dams — together known as the Wadi Derna dam — to the south, and the resulting floods destroyed buildings, sank vehicles and left bodies strewn in the streets.
Libyans have posted in Facebook groups, begging for information about their missing loved ones.
“The situation is catastrophic,” the Derna City Council said in a Facebook post. “The city of Derna is pleading for help.”
Officials said on Tuesday that a third dam, located closer to Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, was also on the brink of collapse and needed maintenance to prevent a similar disaster.
Did Libya prepare for the storm?
Political chaos for more than a decade has made it hard for Libya to maintain its infrastructure. The country is governed by a western administration based in Tripoli and a rival authority based in the east that oversees Derna, among other cities. Dozens of armed groups also wield power.
Most of the population of Libya lives in coastal areas, and the country is especially vulnerable to climate change and severe storms. Yet even after the storm killed more than a dozen people last week when it swept through Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, the Libyan authorities seemed to have no serious plan to monitor the dams, warn residents or evacuate them, said Anas El Gomati, the director of a Libyan policy research center.
The failures of the dams raised alarm over Libya’s crumbling infrastructure. Some officials indicated that at least two other dams could also be at risk of collapse: the Jaza dam and the Qattara dam, both near Benghazi. A government statement assured Libyans that both dams were functioning and under control.
Late on Wednesday, a top Libyan official called for an investigation into the collapse of the dams. Mohamed al-Menfi, the head of the country’s Presidential Council, wrote on social media that “everyone who made a mistake or neglected either in abstaining or taking actions that resulted in the collapse of the dams in the city of Derna” would be held accountable.
What is the aid response?
The rival authorities in Libya seem to be working together to some extent on the search-and-rescue efforts. Medical teams, including workers sent by the Red Crescent emergency service, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the government in Tripoli, mobilized in the area on Wednesday, and other aid groups said they were planning to expand their services in Libya.
Tripoli also has sent supplies, including body bags and medical equipment, to Benghazi, which is more than 180 miles from Derna.
But it was not immediately clear whether supplies had reached the most affected areas, as roads into Derna have been cut off by the flooding. The city itself was split in two by the water, witnesses said, forcing rescue workers to take a long, difficult route to cross from one side to the other.
President Biden said on Tuesday that the United States would send emergency funds to relief organizations and that it would coordinate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide support. European countries including Britain, France and Germany have offered to send humanitarian aid as well.
Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.