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Libya fears a spiraling death toll from powerful storm floods

People check an area damaged by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on Monday.
AFP via Getty Images
People check an area damaged by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on Monday.

Officials in Libya say at least hundreds of people have died and thousands are feared missing in the eastern part of the country after a powerful storm swept across its mountainous terrains and coastline. The storm destroyed two dams and unleashed a torrent of fast-running muddy water that carried buildings, homes and entire families away.

Libyan National Army spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said late Monday more than 2,000 people had been killed from floodwaters in the city of Derna alone after Storm Daniel made landfall on Sunday, and thousands there were still missing. The Associated Press cited eastern Libya's health minister as saying more than 1,000 victims' bodies were collected so far.

Libyan officials are struggling to reach many areas, making it difficult to confirm exact numbers of dead or missing, and estimates have ranged widely.

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Local emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents are digging through rubble to recover the dead. Some have used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water.

The regional capital Benghazi has become a hub for aid arriving from abroad.

Egypt, which borders Libya to the east, has sent military teams and helicopters, and its military chief of staff visited to assess the situation and coordinate relief efforts. Egypt is also sending three planes carrying medical and food supplies, 25 rescue teams and equipment, and is sending another plane for medical evacuations.

Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also promised help for search and rescue efforts.

A view of devastation in disaster zones after the floods caused by the Storm Daniel ravaged the region, on Monday, in Derna, Libya.
/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A view of devastation in disaster zones after the floods caused by the Storm Daniel ravaged the region, on Monday, in Derna, Libya.

Entire families have died

"The citizens who left Derna and the affected areas left as though they were born today, without anything. All their belongings are gone," al-Mismari said. "There are those who lost their families, those who lost part of their family."

Tens of thousands of people are homeless and have been displaced by the storm in different parts of eastern Libya, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council's country director for Libya, Dax Roque.

The eastern city of Derna appears to be the hardest hit by Storm Daniel, which gained strength as it crossed the Mediterranean before making landfall on Libya over the weekend. The city was flooded after two dams broke.

"The situation was honestly completely unexpected. It is the first time we experience something like this," al-Mismari said, noting that the last major natural disaster to hit Libya was an earthquake 60 years ago.

People check an area damaged by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on Monday.
/ AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
People check an area damaged by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on Monday.

Challenging search and rescue conditions

Roads that once connected cities in the east are completely inaccessible, either destroyed or under water. Others are partly inaccessible, he said. This, combined with the mountainous terrain of areas like Jebel Akhdar in the northeast, have made it difficult for search and rescue teams to reach affected areas, al-Mismari said.

With internet and phone connectivity in affected areas spotty at best, the outside world is partly relying on social media videos from affected areas to show the scale of the devastation.

Some videos show bodies lying in the streets outside a morgue in Derna. Other videos show rescue workers trying to pull a man to safety as brown flood waters flow quickly, covering roads and flooding farmland. Other videos show cars piled atop one another in heaps of twisted metal. Homes and bridges that once stood as markers of the city are now gone, turned to rubble.

Roque, of the NRC in Libya, says this latest disaster will exacerbate the situation for Libyans who have already endured years of conflict, poverty and displacement.

"Hospitals and shelters will be overstretched amidst the large wave of displacement," he said in a statement, urging for greater international aid for Libya.

A view of the city of Derna is seen on Tuesday. Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that broke dams and swept away entire neighborhoods in multiple coastal towns, the destruction appeared greatest in Derna city.
Jamal Alkomaty / AP
/
AP
A view of the city of Derna is seen on Tuesday. Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that broke dams and swept away entire neighborhoods in multiple coastal towns, the destruction appeared greatest in Derna city.

Divided rule hampers response

The country's infrastructure was not equipped to deal with such a massive catastrophe following years of conflict and instability. Libya is ruled by two rival governments, one in the east and the other in the capital, Tripoli.

The oil-exporting country has in recent years also become a major transit route for illegal migration to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, underscoring the corruption and disarray in parts of the country following the ouster from power and killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Libya's National Army says foreigners are among the dead, and that a number of civil defense and Libyan soldiers involved in rescue operations have also been killed. It's unclear how many foreigners or soldiers have died in the floods.

Still, spokesman al-Mismari said the people of Libya have proven they are "one people" in this time of need, with official and unofficial aid coming from areas under rival government control, including Tripoli, Misrata and others. The Libyan National Army, for which al-Mismari is a spokesperson, is in control of the east.

The United States says it stands ready to support Libya with humanitarian aid and is assessing how best to do so.

Aya Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Ruth Sherlock reported from Rome.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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