As many as 10,000 people are missing and feared dead after a storm slammed into Libya, unleashing a devastating surge of floodwaters across the country’s east.
A disaster wrought by intense rainfall from Mediterranean storm Daniel intensified when two dams burst — with at least 5,300 people killed in one coastal city and thousands more missing, according to the Libya News Agency.
Entire neighborhoods were swept away in the North African country, which was already reeling from years of conflict. Images showed the region obliterated by raging floodwaters, with cars, masonry and debris strewn across streets and entire buildings swept away.
The deluge appeared to have done its worst damage in Derna, a city where at least 5,300 people were confirmed dead, according to the state news agency.
Another 6,000 are thought to be missing and over 20,000 have been displaced and left without homes or basic necessities in the coastal city, said Ciarán Donnelly, the International Rescue Committee’s senior vice president for crisis response, recovery and development.
Othman Abduljaleel, the health minister in Libya’s eastern government, described the situation as “catastrophic.”
“The bodies are still lying on the ground in many parts. Hospitals are filled with bodies. And there are areas we have yet to reach,” he said, according to The Associated Press.
That means the toll is likely to rise significantly in the coming days, aid groups warned.
In an interview with Sky News Arabia, the head of the Libyan National Unity Government, Abdulhameed Al-Dabaiba, said a large number of bodies in Derna were swept into the sea by the floods, and he emphasized the need for specialized search-and-rescue teams in the area.
Al-Dabaiba also said the Government of National Unity will send aid to eastern Libya. It is a provisional government formed in 2021, and it does not administer regions in the east where Derna is.
Cellphone video shows destruction of dam that contributed to catastrophic flooding of Derna, Libya
The government in eastern Libya based in Benghazi is locked in a rivalry with the western government in Tripoli.
Tamer Ramadan, the Libya envoy to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a video news conference Tuesday that the final death toll could be much higher.
“We confirmed from our independent sources of information the number of missing people is hitting 10,000 persons, so far,” he said, adding that it was not a finalized figure.
The disaster in Libya was “as devastating as the situation in Morocco,” Ramadan said, referring to the earthquake that hit Friday and killed more than 2,900 people.
“The humanitarian needs are huge and much more beyond the abilities of the Libyan Red Crescent and even beyond the abilities of the government,” he added.
The International Rescue Committee underscored that need, adding that action against climate change is also necessary.
“Globally, climate change has made these extreme weather events more frequent and intense, making it even harder for communities to cope and rebuild, especially in conflict-affected regions,” Donnelly said.
In a statement, President Joe Biden expressed his condolences to the Libyan people.
“In this difficult hour, the United States is sending emergency funds to relief organizations and coordinating with the Libyan authorities and the U.N. to provide additional support,” he said. “We join the Libyan people in grieving the loss of too many lives cut short, and send our hope to all those missing loved ones.”
Libya is divided between rival administrations, each controlling the east and the west of the country.
Both sides have had the backing of different militias and foreign governments that have vied for power in the oil-rich country following the death of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 after four decades of rule.
Years of subsequent conflict have left public services and infrastructure crumbling across the country.
On Monday, the Libyan Presidential Council declared the worst-affected areas, around the cities of Derna, Shahat and Dar Al Bayda, a disaster zone.
The council asked “brotherly and friendly countries and international organizations to provide assistance and support for the stricken areas and maritime rescue efforts to recover the victims.”
The Libyan Health Ministry said Monday that it had chartered a plane and filled it with equipment and medicines to be sent to affected communities in the east of the country.
CORRECTION (Sept. 12, 2023, 8:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the International Rescue Committee’s senior vice president for crisis response, recovery and development. He is Ciarán Donnelly, not Donelly.