Searchers race to recover bodies in Libyan city where 5,100 died in flooding

A general view of the flooded city of Derna, Libya (Muhammad J Elalwany/AP)
A general view of the flooded city of Derna, Libya (Muhammad J Elalwany/AP)

Search teams combed streets, wrecked buildings and even the sea on Wednesday to look for bodies in a coastal Libyan city where the collapse of two dams unleashed a massive flash flood that killed at least 5,100 people.

The Mediterranean city of Derna has struggled to get help after Sunday night’s deluge washed away most access roads.

Aid workers who managed to reach the city described devastation in its centre, with thousands still missing and tens of thousands left homeless.

“Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children,” Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, said over the phone from Derna, adding search teams went through shattered apartment buildings and retrieved the dead floating offshore in the Mediterranean Sea.

  • To donate to the appeal for Libya go to https://donate/ or for postal donations: British Red Cross, Libya Floods Appeal, 44 Moorfields, London, EC2Y 9AL
France Libya Floods
French aid workers wait by a cargo plane loaded with disaster relief for Libya (Daniel Cole/AP)

Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding on Sunday in many towns of eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna.

Two dams in the mountains above the city collapsed, sending floodwaters roaring down the Wadi Derna river and through the city centre, sweeping away entire city blocks.

As much as a quarter of the city has disappeared, emergency officials said.

Waves rose as high as seven metres (23 feet), Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, told broadcaster France24.

Derna lies on a narrow coastal plain, under steep mountains. The only two usable roads from the south take a winding route through the mountains.

Collapsed bridges over the river split the city centre, further hampering movement.

Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance centre in eastern Libya, said at least 5,100 deaths were recorded in Derna, along with around 100 others elsewhere in eastern Libya.

More than 7,000 people in the city were injured.

A spokesman for the eastern Libyan interior ministry put the death tally in Derna at more than 5,300, according to the state-run news agency.

Libya Flooding
At least 5,100 deaths were recorded in Derna, along with around 100 others elsewhere in eastern Libya (Muhammad J Elalwany/AP)

The number of deaths was likely to increase since teams are still collecting bodies, Mr Ali said. At least 9,000 people are missing, but that number could drop as communications are restored.

At least 30,000 people in Derna were displaced by the flooding, the UN’s International Organisation for Migration said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa and Marj.

The startling devastation pointed to the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east, the other in the west, and the result has been neglect of infrastructure in many areas.

Derna is 250 kilometres (150 miles) east of Benghazi, where international aid started to arrive on Tuesday.

Neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Turkey, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, sent rescue teams and aid.

The UK and German governments sent assistance too, including blankets, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tents, water filters and generators.

US President Joe Biden also said the United States would send money to relief organisations and coordinate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.

Authorities transferred hundreds of bodies to morgues in nearby towns. More than 300, including 84 Egyptians, were brought to the morgue in the city of Tobruk, 169 kilometres (105 miles) east of Derna, the local Medical Centre reported.

The victims’ lists reflected how Libya, despite its turmoil, was always a magnet for workers from around the region because of its oil industry.