Sep 12, 2023 - World

"Catastrophic" flooding kills thousands in Libya, with 10,000 still missing

Overturned cars lay among other debris caused by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya this week. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The death toll from a major storm that caused "catastrophic" flooding in northeastern Libya is expected to rapidly rise, with officials saying on Tuesday at least 10,000 people were still missing.

The big picture: Estimates by east Libyan officials put the death toll from Mediterranean Storm Daniel between 2,000 and 5,200 people as of late Tuesday local time.

  • The storm brought strong winds and heavy rains, causing floodwaters to burst through dams and sweep away homes and buildings.
  • One east Libya government official told Reuters earlier Tuesday that nearly a quarter of the city of Derna, home to more than 90,000 people, had been wiped out.

It's one of the worst natural disasters to hit Libya in decades. The scale of the destruction underscores the vulnerability of a country that has been through years of chaos and fighting.

  • Libya is currently ruled by two rival governments — one in the east and another in the west. Fighting and political instability have come at the expense of development and investment in infrastructure in many towns and villages.

What they're saying: "Most people were sleeping. Nobody was ready," Mostafa Salem, a resident of Derna, told Reuters, adding he had lost dozens of his relatives.

  • A rescue worker told the news agency that they lacked the needed resources to search for survivors. "We have nothing to save people ... no machines ... we are asking for urgent help," the worker told Reuters.
  • Othman Abduljaleel, the health minister in Libya's eastern-based government, was quoted by state media as saying "the situation is catastrophic" in the affected areas, per Al Jazeera.
  • "The bodies are still lying on the ground in many parts [of Derna]. Hospitals are filled with bodies, and there are areas we have yet to reach," he added, saying an "international intervention is needed."

The humanitarian needs are "huge," said Tamer Ramadan, head of a delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

  • Ramadan told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that several challenges remain in responding to the crisis, including the need for health facilities, shelter, food and other basic goods and services.
  • At least three IFRC workers died in the floods, Ramadan added.
  • "We are calling upon our international partners to refocus on Libya and provide whatever support they can to the emergency responders in the country to be able to overcome this devastating crisis."

President Biden said in a statement on Tuesday that the U.S. is sending emergency funds to relief organizations coordinating aid in Libya in this "difficult hour."

  • "We join the Libyan people in grieving the loss of too many lives cut short, and send our hope to all those missing loved ones," he added.

Zoom out: Storm Daniel made landfall in eastern Libya on Sunday, after causing deadly floods in Greece and other European cities earlier this month.

  • Feeding off the moisture and energy from the warm Mediterranean, the storm developed into what is known as a "medicane," a Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone, Axios's Andrew Freedman reports.
  • Libya's National Center of Meteorology reported that Daniel dumped about 414.1 mm (16 inches) of rain in the city of Bayda over a 24-hour period Sunday into Monday.
  • "Heavy rainfall events are occurring more frequently worldwide, and also are becoming more severe, which scientists have linked to the burning of fossil fuels," Freedman notes.
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