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UN says most Libya flood deaths could have been avoided, as fears rise toll could hit 20,000

The majority of the thousands of deaths in catastrophic floods in Libya could have been avoided, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization said Thursday.

The assertion, from World Meteorological Organization head Petteri Taalas, came as Libyan health officials confirmed 5,500 deaths and said 9,000 people are still missing after an unusually strong Mediterranean storm named "Daniel" on Sunday caused deadly flooding in towns across eastern Libya, causing two dams to burst.

The torrents swept away families as they slept and whole neighborhoods.

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“If there would have been a normal operating meteorological service, they could have issued the warnings," Taalas told reporters in Geneva, an apparent reference to gaps and vulnerabilities in Libya's emergency response coordination resulting from it having two rival, warring governments. The country has been mired in a military conflict since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out the evacuation,” Taalas said.

The WMO said earlier this week that Libya's National Meteorological Center had issued warnings 72 hours before the flooding, notifying all governmental authorities by e-mail and through media.

It wasn't immediately clear whether those warnings had been acted upon.

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This image grab from footage published on social networks by Libyan al-Masar television channel on September 13 shows an aerial view of a extensive damage in the wake of floods after the Mediterranean storm "Daniel" hit Libya's eastern city of Derna.
This image grab from footage published on social networks by Libyan al-Masar television channel on September 13 shows an aerial view of a extensive damage in the wake of floods after the Mediterranean storm "Daniel" hit Libya's eastern city of Derna.

Local officials and aid groups have warned that the current death toll could quadruple given the flood's force.

"The floods are like a mini-tsunami destroying everything in its path," said Salah Aboulgasem, a deputy director at Islamic Relief, a U.K.-based aid group, in emailed comments.

Aboulgasem is coordinating aid delivery to Libya.

"A quarter of Derna, the biggest city in the region, has completely disappeared. It is absolutely harrowing," he said. “Buildings where multiple generations of the same family all lived have been swept away. Drowned bodies are washing up on the roads, and every time the tide comes in it is washing bodies back up."

Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, Derna's mayor, told the Reuters new agency that the estimated number of deaths in the city could reach between 18,000 to 20,000 based on the extent of the damage. The floods in Libya came just days after more than 2800 people dided following a 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Morocco.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UN says most Libya flood deaths could have been avoided