More than 10,000 people are dead or missing in eastern Libya after a devastating storm and flooding destroyed dams and caused hundreds of buildings to collapse, sparking widespread anger over the lack of flood warnings in a country torn between rival governments.
More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered so far, but local officials estimated that more than 5,000 people were killed and several thousand more are missing.
A quarter of the city of Derna, with a population of about 100,000, was wiped out by a massive flood after two dams burst, they said. Buildings and coastal highways were swept away into the Mediterranean.
The flash floods were caused by Storm Daniel, a powerful, slow-moving storm system that dumped a record-breaking amount of rain on central Greece last week, killing 15 people, before moving southward to Libya, where torrential rains hit Benghazi and other towns and cities this week.
Winds climbed to 70 to 80 kilometres an hour, causing electricity towers to topple.
The daily rainfall in some Libyan cities reached an unprecedented 414 millimetres, with some experts estimating that 1,000 millimetres may have fallen in other areas.
Videos showed vast destruction in Derna, with tall buildings gutted or badly damaged, cars flipped over and streets filled with mud. Bodies covered in blankets were lined up along city streets outside hospitals.
Families and entire neighbourhoods were swept out to sea after the dams burst with an explosive roar in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning while many were sleeping.
The damage extended along Libya’s north coast. “Entire villages have been overwhelmed by the floods and the death toll continues to rise,” Dax Bennet Roque, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Libya, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Tens of thousands of people are displaced with no prospect of going back home,” he said. “Hospitals and shelters will be overstretched.”
Severe flooding has struck across the world in recent weeks, causing damage in Hong Kong, Brazil, Las Vegas and elsewhere.
“The disasters continue the series of extreme events which have caused loss of livelihoods and lives in many countries around the world,” the World Meteorological Organization said in a report on Tuesday.
Libyan authorities had issued an official warning that Storm Daniel was heading toward the country, but many Libyans said they were not told of the risk of dams bursting in Derna, a coastal city with a river valley running through it.
Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli has no power over eastern Libya, where a rival administration is in place, based in Benghazi and controlled by the Russian-backed militia commander Khalifa Haftar. The divided authority delayed the flood warnings and the rescue efforts, many analysts have said.
Years of wars and military clashes across Libya have left cities vulnerable because much of the country’s infrastructure – including some dams – was not properly maintained.
“Recovery and relief efforts will be hamstrung by competition between Libya’s two governments,” the research group Oxford Economics said in a report on Tuesday. “The Benghazi government has no money, and the one in Tripoli will try to capitalize on the disaster.”
Eastern Libya was largely unprepared for the disaster. “Although the storm was forecasted to arrive in Libya after it hit Greece, local and national authorities implemented almost no pre-storm measures or pre-evacuation plans,” Malak Altaeb, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said in a commentary on Monday.
“Rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and intense storms threaten lives, property, and critical infrastructure along these coastlines. And Daniel revealed the particular lack of readiness of countries in North Africa, which have no prepared adaptation and mitigation plans to deal with extreme weather events.”
There are fears that Derna could be at risk of another flood disaster if there is any further rainfall in the near future, since the city is no longer protected by the two dams.
Many Libyans complained that rescue teams were slow to arrive in the flood-hit region in the first 24 hours after the destruction. But this was part of a broader neglect of the country.
“Humanitarian aid groups in Libya have been chronically underfunded,” the Norwegian Refugee Council said.
“Communities across Libya have endured years of conflict, poverty and displacement … Aid to Libya has shrunk over the years, with only a quarter of the needed funding for the humanitarian response met.”
By Tuesday, emergency aid was finally arriving in Libya from several countries, including Egypt, Turkey, Italy and Algeria. Other countries were preparing to send aid. Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada “stands ready to support” the relief operations.
U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration is “sending emergency funds to relief organizations and co-ordinating with the Libyan authorities and the UN to provide additional support.”
Damage to roads and communications systems is likely to hamper the relief operations. United Nations agencies were distributing aid, with the World Food Program providing food baskets to people in 16 locations in eastern Libya. “The situation is heartbreaking,” Cindy McCain, executive director of the WFP, said in a social media post.
Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said the flooding and heavy rainfall was of “epic proportions” and had affected up to 1.8 million people in Libya. Some hospitals were destroyed, she said.