Libyan officials revealed on Thursday that the city of Derna has interred thousands of individuals in mass graves. This revelation came as search teams worked through the wreckage caused by severe floods, and the city’s mayor suggested that the death toll could potentially triple or even exceed that number.
The deluge swept away entire families on Sunday night and exposed vulnerabilities in the oil-rich country that has been mired in conflict since 2011. Health officials have confirmed 5,100 deaths and say 9,000 people are still missing.
Here’s a look at the latest developments.
WHAT HAPPENED IN LIBYA?
Daniel, an unusually strong Mediterranean storm, caused deadly flooding in towns across eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna. As the storm pounded the coast Sunday night, residents said they heard loud explosions when the dams outside the city collapsed. Floodwaters washed down Wadi Derna, a valley that cuts through the city, crashing through buildings and washing people out to sea.
HOW DOES CONFLICT IN LIBYA AFFECT THE DISASTER?
The startling devastation reflected the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. Oil-rich Libya has been divided between rival governments for most of the past decade — one in the east, the other in the west — and one result has been widespread neglect of infrastructure.
The dams that collapsed outside Derna were built in the 1970s and have not been maintained for years, local media reported.
The disaster brought a rare moment of unity, as government agencies across the country rushed to help the affected areas.
While the Tobruk-based government of east Libya is leading relief efforts, the Tripoli-based western government allocated the equivalent of $412 million for reconstruction in Derna and other eastern towns, and an armed group in Tripoli sent a convoy with humanitarian aid.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TODAY?
Derna has begun burying its dead, mostly in mass graves, said eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.
More than 3,000 bodies were buried by Thursday morning, the minister said, while another 2,000 were still being processed. He said most of the dead were buried in mass graves outside Derna, while others were transferred to nearby towns and cities.
Abduljaleel said rescue teams were still searching wrecked buildings in the city center, and divers were combing seawater off Derna.
Untold numbers could be buried under drifts of mud and debris, including overturned cars and chunks of concrete, that rise up to four meters (13 feet) high. Rescuers have struggled to bring in heavy equipment as the floods washed out or blocked roads leading to the area.
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN KILLED?
Health authorities have put the death toll in Derna at 5,100 as of Wednesday. The number of deaths was likely to climb as searches are continuing, and at least 9,000 people are still missing, said Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance center in eastern Libya.
Local officials suggested that the death toll could be much higher than announced. In comments to the Saudi-owned Al Arabia television station, Derna Mayor Abdel-Raham al-Ghaithi said the tally could climb to 20,000, given the number of neighborhoods that were washed out.
An official with the U.N.’s World Health Organization in Libya said the fatalities could reach 7,000, given the number of people who were still missing. “The numbers could surprise and shock all of us,” said the official, who was not authorized to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The storm also killed around 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, the health minister said.
The dead in eastern Libya included at least 84 Egyptians, who were transferred to their home country on Wednesday. More than 70 came from one village in the southern province of Beni Suef. Libyan media also said dozens of Sudanese migrants were killed in the disaster.
IS HELP REACHING SURVIVORS?
The floods have also displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, and several thousand others were forced to leave their homes in other eastern towns, the U.N. agency said.
The floods damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, hampering the arrival of international rescue teams and humanitarian assistance. Local authorities were able to clear some routes, and over the past 48 hours humanitarian convoys have been able to enter the city.
International aid started to arrive earlier this week to Benghazi, 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of Derna. Neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have sent rescue teams and aid, as did Turkey, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. The U.K. and German governments sent supplies including blankets, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tents, water filters and generators.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would send money to relief organizations and coordinate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to provide additional support.