As Derna buries its dead, Libya begins to seek those responsible for flood tragedy

The Libyan Red Crescent puts the death toll from the disaster at over 11,000 with thousands of people still missing. An investigation is being called for amid public anger over institutional failures and lack of response

An aerial image of Derna taken on September 13, after the passage of Storm Daniel.
An aerial image of Derna taken on September 13, after the passage of Storm Daniel.MARWAN ALFAITURI (Marwan Alfaituri via REUTERS)
Marc Español

Eastern Libya on Thursday began the process of burying thousands of people, many of them in mass graves, who were killed in the floods that swept through the region earlier in the week. According to initial counts by local authorities, the catastrophe has already left more than 5,000 people dead, although it is feared that the final figure could even increase fourfold. The Libyan Red Crescent raised the death toll to 11,300 on Thursday, according to the Associated Press. The scale of the tragedy, which is becoming clearer as rescue teams gradually comb the worst-affected areas, is generating growing outrage among citizens amid calls for an investigation.

“When the two dams collapsed, [the water] hit the center of the city, where more than half of its inhabitants lived. Buildings collapsed; many people, entire families, died. I lost more than 20 relatives on my mother’s and father’s side. It’s tragic, horrible,” Ghaith Alsanusi, a human rights activist from Derna now living in Canada, told EL PAÍS.

“Derna is now divided and people from the east cannot go to the west or even to the center, because it is closed off by military personnel,” adds Alsanusi, who points out that the situation around the city is equally bad. “There are people I know who have not been able to contact their relatives 72 hours later because of internet problems,” he notes.

The president of Libya’s Presidential Council, Mohamed Al Menfi, said Thursday that he has asked the state prosecutor general to open an investigation into the catastrophe and to hold accountable “those who committed an error or negligence or refrained from taking measures that [triggered] the collapse of the dams.” Menfi also called for “investigations to be extended to all those who obstructed international aid efforts or their arrival in affected cities.”

The number of victims of the catastrophe remains unclear. Although the initial count by local authorities and emergency services puts the death toll at over 5,000, the mayor of Derna, the worst-hit city, has stated that it could reach between 18,000 and 20,000, a figure that tallies with that of the Red Crescent, which has said there are still over 10,000 people missing in addition to the 11,300 the organization estimates have been killed. The center of the coastal city of Derna was completely devastated after Storm Daniel destroyed two nearby dams, releasing huge volumes of water along a valley that rushed directly into the town.

“People in the city are in a state of panic, they are afraid. No one in Derna expected this, and the problem now is that there is no coordination [in aid arriving],” Farhat Al-Karimi, president of the student union at Derna University, explains by phone from the city. “The situation is really catastrophic.”

An aerial image of the city of Derna aftert the passage of Storm Daniel, September 14.
An aerial image of the city of Derna aftert the passage of Storm Daniel, September 14.AYMAN AL-SAHILI (REUTERS)

Risk of infections

In addition to the vast number of fatalities and thousands of people that are missing, the tragedy has displaced over 30,000 residents, which is putting a lot of pressure on rescue and emergency teams operating with very limited capacities. “The search for the missing is still ongoing inside Derna, and relief operations are continuing to provide household goods and personal materials to the displaced families who have survived,” says Muhammad Al-Warfalli, spokesman for the Libyan Humanitarian Relief Agency in Benghazi, the main city in the east of the country.

The large number of deceased still scattered around the city, many of them under rubble or in the water, and the lack of body bags for those being located is also causing concern. “We are in the fourth day and there are many bodies that have not yet been found, which have entered the stage of decomposition and putrefaction, posing a great risk of spreading infections through the air or the water,” says Muhannad Al-Sharif, a doctor specializing in infection control based in Benghazi.

Various reports state the tragedy was caused by political negligence in the maintenance of the dams in Derna, which were known to be in poor condition. The difficulties being faced by search, rescue, and emergency operations are generating growing unrest and are exposing the consequences of the instability that Libya, a country politically and administratively divided in two, has been mired in for more than a decade.

The secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, told a news conference in Geneva on Thursday that casualties from the floods could have been avoided if Libya had a functional weather service. The same agency noted on Tuesday that warnings had been issued for Storm Daniel up to 72 hours before its passage, and that Libyan authorities were urged to take preventive measures.

In addition, an academic paper published last year has been circulating on social media. The report, produced by Libya’s Sebha University, concluded that Derna was at at “risk of flooding” because of the poor maintenance of the dams and that in the event of a flood, “the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.” A former member of the Libyan Parliament has also produced a document showing significant sums of money were allocated in 2020 for the maintenance of the dams, but no work was carried out.

Libya has two rival governments: the internationally recognized one established in the west under Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabeiba, and another in the east presided over by Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter, the commander of the Libyan National Army. Despite being an oil-rich nation, years of division, paralysis, mismanagement, and corruption have left public services and infrastructure decrepit and incapable of withstanding extreme events such as the recent floods.

The political fracture of the country is becoming evident in the public management of the crisis, in which there has been some cooperation but for which not even a central emergency Cabinet has been established. Both governments are making parallel announcements about their own responses.

In this vein, the operations room formed in the east, announced Wednesday night, is headed by General Saddam Khalifa, Hafter’s son and one of the most powerful men in the region. In the capital, Tripoli, located in the west, another emergency response committee has been organized under Dabeiba, who in recent days has announced the dispatch of funds, supplies, medical equipment, and the dispatch of a ship with 700 berths to the affected area.

This disunity of Libya’s political leaders is being answered by a major civilian mobilization to try to assist or send aid to the population of Derna and other eastern cities affected by the storm. “[The mobilization] is huge, I can’t even describe how much. In every neighborhood there are initiatives to collect aid for the east,” says Mohamed Tantoush, a volunteer working with the Libyan Red Crescent in Tripoli.

The arrival of rescue teams and shipments of emergency supplies from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates is also accelerating while Spain has sent a rescue team of firefighters to the area.

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