Libya is racing to bury its dead as bodies pile up in the streets of Derna, the northern coastal city devastated by flooding after a torrential downpour smashed through two dams, washing homes into the sea.
The death toll rose to over 6,000 people as of Wednesday morning local time, according to Saadeddin Abdul Wakil, health ministry undersecretary of the Unity Government in Tripoli, one of two rival governments operating in the country.
Morgues are full in hospitals that remain out of service despite the desperate need to treat survivors of the disaster, according to staff. In Egypt, the government buried 87 Egyptian victims who died in Libya, according to the country’s emigration ministry.
Around 10,000 more are missing, potentially either swept out to sea or buried beneath rubble that’s strewn throughout the city once home to over 100,000 people, authorities say.
More than 30,000 people have been displaced by the flooding in Derna, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya said Wednesday.
The significant damage to infrastructure in the region has made some stricken regions inaccessible to humanitarian groups. Only two out of the seven entry points to Derna now available.
Satellite images show Derna, Libya on September 2, before the flooding, left, and after the dams collapsed, right.
Emergency teams are searching through piles of debris for survivors and bodies, as officials attempt to honor Islamic beliefs that the dead should receive burial rites within three days.
“The Martyrs’ committee (has been set up to) identify the missing people and to implement procedures for identifying and burial of in accordance with Sharia and legal laws and standards,” said Libya’s minister of state for cabinet affairs, Adel Juma.
The destruction caused by Storm Daniel has made a mammoth mission even harder for rescuers trying to clear roads and debris to find survivors.
The storm took out communications, frustrating rescue efforts and causing anxiety among family members outside Libya who are waiting for news of missing loved ones.
Ayah, a Palestinian woman with cousins in Derna, said she has been unable to contact them since the floods.
“I’m really worried about them. I have two cousins who live in Derna. It seems all communications are down and I don’t know if they are alive at this point. It is very terrifying watching the videos coming out of Derna. We are all terrified,” she told CNN.
A general view of the city of Derna is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 12., 2023. 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. (AP Photo/Jamal Alkomaty)
Libya was convulsed by the 2011 uprising against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi and ripped apart by civil war. The scale of the destruction underscores the vulnerability of a country that has for years grappled with warring factions and chaos.
The UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, sits in Tripoli in northwest Libya, while its eastern rival is controlled by commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), who support the eastern-based parliament led by Osama Hamad.
Derna, which lies some 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Benghazi, falls under the control of Haftar and his eastern administration.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, urged all Libyan political actors to overcome “political deadlocks and divisions” and act collectively, in a statement on Wednesday.
The very strong low-pressure system moved into the Mediterranean before developing into a tropical-like cyclone and crossing the Libyan coast. Daniel also brought unprecedented flooding to Greece last week, where the death toll was much lower.
The deadly storm comes in an unprecedented year of climate disasters and record-breaking weather extremes, from devastating wildfires to oppressive heat.
While the floods affected several cities across the region, Derna suffered the most damage after two dams collapsed, washing entire neighborhoods into the churning sea.
“Libya was not prepared for a catastrophe like that,” said Osama Aly, an Emergency and Ambulance service spokesperson.
Medical professionals on the ground in Derna have described scenes of bodies accumulating near local hospitals, as aid workers struggle to bury the thousands of victims who have died.
Dr Anas Barghaty, the head of Kuwaifia Hospital in Benghazi, is volunteering in Derna. He told CNN that “the situation is a disaster.”
His colleague, Dr Aisha, said, “We are calling on all relevant parties and international aid agencies to quickly and urgently interfere to end these catastrophic conditions.
“The situation is dire. There is a very high death toll. And we are now faced with the problem of being unable to deal with these bodies, or bury them. We are trying to get the appropriate humanitarian assistance to get these bodies to freezers.
“We need the appropriate groups to urgently take action and interfere to help with identifying the DNA on these bodies … Of course in the meantime there is nothing we can do to prevent this environmental disaster from breaking out.
“These here are only half of the bodies that we have seen. There are other bodies in the other side of the city,” she added.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) urgently called on the global community to address the “catastrophic humanitarian crisis unfolding in Libya.”
Elie Abouaoun, IRC’s director for Libya, said the committee is “gravely concerned about the protection needs of those caught up in this tragedy, especially thousands of women and children who have to leave their homes in search of safety.”
Abouaoun said that many hospitals have become unable to deal with the numbers of survivors in need of treatment, adding that fears of waterborne diseases are compounding stress on Libya’s health systems.
“Access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities will be required to prevent a further crisis within a crisis.”
Foreign aid is now pouring into the country. On Wednesday, Libya’s western neighbor Tunisia sent a search and rescue team of around 52 people. This included four search dogs, three doctors, a diving team and a water extraction contingent, Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reported.
Eight Algerian army aircraft carrying humanitarian aid, including food and medical supplies, clothing and tents also started arriving in Libya on Wednesday, Libyan state news agency LANA said.
European Union member states including Germany, Romania, and Finland, have offered tents, field beds and blankets, 80 generators and food items, as well as hospital tents and water tanks via the bloc’s Civil Protection Mechanism.
The EU also released an initial €500,000 ($540,000) in humanitarian funding, after Libyan authorities called for international aid.
Satellite images depict a dam in Derna, Libya on September 2, before a powerful storm hit the region, left, and the aftermath of the dam’s collapse, right.
Turkish aircraft delivering humanitarian aid arrived in Libya on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country would send 168 search and rescue teams and humanitarian aid to Benghazi, according to state run news agency Anadoulu Agency.
Italy is sending a civil defense team to assist with rescue operations, the country’s Civil Protection Department said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Tripoli announced that its special envoy, ambassador Richard Norland, had made an official declaration of humanitarian need.
This “will authorize initial funding that the United States will provide in support of relief efforts in Libya. We are coordinating with UN partners and Libyan authorities to assess how best to target official US assistance,” it posted on X (formally known as Twitter).
United Arab Emirates President, Zayed Al Nahyan, has also directed to send aid and search and rescue teams while offering his condolences to those affected by the catastrophe, state news agency reported.