Update: Death toll in Libya flooding could surpass 15,000

Streets are flooded after storm Daniel in Marj, Libya, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. The head of one of Libya’s rival governments says that 2,000 people are feared dead in flooding that swept through the eastern parts of the north African nation.
Streets are flooded after storm Daniel in Marj, Libya, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. The head of one of Libya’s rival governments says that 2,000 people are feared dead in flooding that swept through the eastern parts of the north African nation. | Libya Almasar TV via Associated Press

Mediterranean storm Daniel caused such devastating floods in Libya that entire neighborhoods were swept away. Footage on X, formerly known as Twitter, and other social media platforms shows apocalyptic scenes of water rushing by collapsed buildings and cars stacked on top of each other after floodwaters passed by in Derna, where the destruction seems to be the greatest.

The city of Derna was formerly held by Islamic extremists in the “chaos that has gripped Libya for more than a decade and left it with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure,” reports The Associated Press. Authorities declared Derna a disaster zone Monday after Daniel dumped more rain in one day than the region had seen in 40 years, causing two aging dams to collapse, and sending floodwaters rushing through the city. The floods have wiped out a quarter of the city of around 125,000 residents, reports Reuters.

Updated numbers for the official death toll stand at 5,200 as of Tuesday morning, according to Al Jazeera. More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered in Derna alone. “Bodies are lying everywhere — in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” Hichem Abu Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation in the administration that controls the east, told Reuters by phone shortly after visiting Derna.

On Monday, the interior minister of the east Libyan government said more than 5,000 are missing, swept towards the Mediterranean Sea, per the AP. On Tuesday, the number of missing was increased to more than 10,000.

Prime Minister Ossama Hamad of the east Libyan government had to leave Derna to get even a choppy connection with a local television station, reports The Washington Post.

Two governments in Libya

Since the 2011 uprising that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power (and later executed him), there has been no central government in Libya. Scant attention has been paid to the country’s infrastructure and private building has been practically unregulated, reports the AP.

Libya is now divided between two rival administrations, each backed by foreign governments and militias. Derna was controlled by extremists, including those who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State until forces loyal to the east government expelled them in 2018. It is now controlled by Khalifa Haftar, a Russian-backed militia leader whose forces dominate eastern Libya, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The other government based in the capital of Tripoli is recognized by the United Nations and most world governments. Lack of a unified government is likely to hinder relief efforts, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“This catastrophe highlights the problems of Libya’s current political system, where elites vie for power and form rival governments, who are wholly uninterested in actually governing,” said Tarek Megrisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies Libya. “The consequences of crises like this are multiplied by this failure to govern,” he told reporters.

International aid needed

Both governments agree that aid is needed and have called on the international community for relief. Interior Minister Essam Abu Zeriba with the east Libya government, urged local and international agencies to rush to help the city in a telephone interview on the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya. “The situation is tragic,” he said, according to AP.

The Tripoli-based west Libya government’s three-person Presidential Council also called for help. “We call on brotherly and friendly countries and international organizations to provide assistance,” Reuters reports.

Georgette Gagnon, the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, posted on X that she was “deeply saddened by the severe impact of Hurricane Daniel on the country and have tasked an emergency response team to prepare to support local authorities and partners in the region.” She also called on “all local, national, and international partners to join hands to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the people in eastern Libya.”

The U.S. Embassy in Libya also posted on X that officials there are “closely monitoring the situation and are aware of reports that Libyan authorities from all sides are working together on an emergency response.”

Türkiye is the first country to send aid in the form of aircraft and rescue teams, according to France24.