On Wednesday, a harrowing picture was emerging from eastern Libya as bodies were washing ashore in the wake of a storm that swept whole neighborhoods out to sea. The death toll is likely to rise, with thousands already confirmed dead and many more still missing. The flood torrent obliterated swathes of the Mediterranean city of Derna unleashed after rains from a powerful storm burst dams above the city on Sunday night. Whole multi-story buildings were swept away with sleeping families inside. The city of 89,000 people has been virtually cut off from the outside world as the raging water has destroyed or swept away many bridges and wiped out communications networks.
According to the state Emergency and Ambulance authority, the swollen river of mud and debris rushing through the town has left nothing undamaged. “Three major bridges have been swept away, and the flow of muddy waters has destroyed homes in valleys,” said a spokesperson. “The number of dead has reached 5,300 so far, and it may double.”
In an attempt to deal with the disaster, a team of doctors has set up a field hospital, with medical supplies arriving from Tripoli. But the hospital is overwhelmed, and its staff is stretched thin, with patients struggling to cope with losing their loved ones. “This is a catastrophe in every sense of the word,” a weeping survivor told a local television station. “I lost 11 family members and have been thrown out of my house.”
The death toll in Derna is expected to rise significantly as workers comb through the rubble. Hospital morgues are complete, and the minister for civil aviation in the administration that runs eastern Libya says the sea at Derna is “constantly dumping dozens of bodies.” Hichem Abu Chkiouat called for international help, saying Libya lacks the experience to deal with such a colossal disaster.
Despite the calamity, there are signs that bitter rivals in Libya’s divided government are working together to help the victims. An official in the internationally recognized government in Tripoli ordered all state agencies to focus on flood relief and to take precautionary measures, a rare show of cooperation between the rival administrations.
The storm is not the first to hit the country since former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime collapsed in 2011. But it is the worst flood that Libya has experienced. And it has spelled catastrophe for the most vulnerable: those who live in remote areas with weak infrastructure and no access to essential services. Many had to flee their villages to the relative safety of cities, but those who remained faced extreme destruction from the flooding. The devastation is a reminder that the Libyan people are still struggling after more than six years of unrest and infighting that has left the country in ruins. It is divided into two competing governments and a slew of militias that have fought each other to control territory and smuggled weapons.