The eastern Libyan city of Derna on Wednesday counted its dead in the thousands, and feared a very heavy toll, after two dams broke under the pressure of torrential rains, releasing powerful floodwaters that swept away everything in their path.
Given the difficult access to this town of 100,000 inhabitants, uncertainties remain over the number of victims of the disaster, which could have left several thousand people dead or missing, according to the authorities.
Roads were cut off, landslides and floods prevented rescue services from reaching the population, who had to make do with rudimentary means to recover bodies buried by the dozen in mass graves, according to images broadcast on social networks.
Derna and other towns are virtually cut off from the rest of the world, despite efforts by the authorities to restore cell phone and internet networks.
Authorities in the east and their rivals in the west are speaking of “thousands” of deaths.
Osama Ali, spokesman for Libya’s “Emergency and Rescue Service” under the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, told AFP on Tuesday that the floods had left “more than 2,300 dead” and around 7,000 injured in Derna, while more than 5,000 people are missing.
An official of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reported a “huge” death toll, which could run into the thousands, with 10,000 still missing.
This is the worst natural disaster to hit Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica since the great earthquake that shook the eastern town of al-Marj in 1963.
On Sunday afternoon, storm Daniel reached Libya’s eastern coast, hitting the metropolis of Benghazi before heading east towards the towns of the Jabal al-Akhdar (north-east), such as Shahat (Cyrene), al-Marj, al-Bayda and Soussa (Apollonia), but above all Derna, the most devastated city.
On Sunday night, the two dams on Wadi Derna, which hold back the waters of the wadi that runs through the city, broke.
Witnesses told Libyan media they heard a “huge explosion” before powerful torrents reached the city, overflowing the riverbanks, washing bridges and entire neighborhoods with their inhabitants into the Mediterranean.
Relief efforts trickle in
As early as Tuesday, bodies began to be washed up by the sea, which had turned the color of mud. In images published on Tuesday by Libyan media, a military helicopter can be seen recovering bodies from a beach strewn with debris and pieces of iron.
Both in Libya and abroad, people are mobilized to help the victims, even if help is still arriving in dribs and drabs.
Aid convoys from Tripolitania in the west are on their way to Derna. The Tripoli government, headed by Abdelhamid Dbeibah, has announced the dispatch of two air ambulances and a helicopter, 87 doctors, a team of rescue workers and search dogs, and technicians from the national electricity company to try to quickly restore the power that has been cut off.
Rescue teams sent by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have also arrived in eastern Libya, according to the authorities.