Libyan town hit by floods counts casualties as search for missing people continues

By Ayman al-Warfali and Ahmed Elumami

DERNA, Libya (Reuters) – Residents of Derna in eastern Libya counted their losses from a flood that devastated parts of the coastal town, as the search for the missing entered its sixth day on Saturday and more bodies were recovered from the sea.

Shop-lined Central Street, once a central business location in Derna, was mostly deserted. The silence was broken only by the sound of the wind whistling past destroyed buildings while a few people sat desolately on the street, drinking coffee and surveying the damage.

“The first thing I’m afraid of is that this will take a long time,” said 44-year-old teacher Tarek Faheem al-Hasadi, whose wife and five young grandchildren died in the flood. He and his son survived by climbing to the roof.

“This requires perseverance and I fear that the support we are getting is only temporary,” he said through tears as he stood guard outside his destroyed home, but added that he was determined not to leave the area.

A three-story building across the street was washed 60 meters (200 feet) down the street by the floodwaters, Hasadi said.

On the coast of Derna, where a wrecked car sat on concrete breakers and driftwood was strewn across muddy ponds, excavators worked to clear a path for rescue teams and a helicopter searched the sea for bodies.

Entire districts of Derna, one of the largest cities in eastern Libya, were washed away or buried under brown mud after two dams south of the city burst on Sunday evening, sending flash floods into a normally dry riverbed.

The International Organization for Migration mission in Libya said more than 5,000 people are believed to be dead, with 3,922 deaths recorded in hospitals. Some 38,640 people have been displaced in the flood-affected region.

The actual death toll could be far higher, officials say.

“The situation is very, very tragic,” said Qais, a rescue worker from Tunisia on the coast who gave only his first name. “We have never seen this kind of damage from water.”

More than 450 bodies have been recovered from the coast in the past three days, including 10 from under the rubble, said Kamal Al-Siwi, the official in charge of missing persons.

“The work is ongoing and very, very, very complicated,” he told Reuters.

The World Health Organization said on Saturday it had flown in enough emergency aid to reach nearly 250,000 people affected by Storm Daniel in eastern Libya, including vital medicines, surgical supplies and body bags for the deceased.

Saudi Arabia announced the departure of its first aid flight to Libya and Russia said the third of its aid flights had arrived with a mobile hospital.

An Italian navy ship carrying supplies such as tents, blankets, water pumps and tractors docked in Derna, the Italian embassy in Libya said, releasing photos of smaller ships bringing equipment ashore.

More than 1,000 people have been buried in mass graves, according to the United Nations, following warnings from aid groups about the risk of water contamination or psychological distress for the families of the deceased.

Derna has been hit hard by the unrest and conflict in Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi during a popular uprising in 2011.

It was controlled by jihadist militants for several years before troops loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) besieged and seized control of the city in 2019.

Infrastructure across Libya has been affected by the political paralysis of the last decade, and experts had warned that Derna faced potential disaster if maintenance work was not carried out on the dams outside the city.

Libya’s ongoing political divisions, with rival governments and parliaments in the east and west, could hamper aid efforts.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfali, Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Sahli in Derna; Additional reporting by Omar Abdel-Razek in Cairo and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Helen Popper)

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