Libya continues search for the missing as bodies wash up on its shores

Death toll from the devastating floods in Libya’s Derna rises to 11,300 with more than 10,000 others still missing, UN says.

Libya Floods
Rescuers and relatives search for bodies of the flood victims at the Corniche of the city of Derna [Abdulaziz Almnsori/AP Photo]

A desperate search for the missing people continues in the Libyan city of Derna, where bodies are still washing up on its shores or decaying under the rubble, a week after Storm Daniel triggered devastating floods in the country’s east.

The United Nations said in a report on Sunday that the death toll in Derna alone has risen to 11,300.

Citing the Libyan Red Crescent, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) added that 10,100 others were missing in the devastated city.

“These figures are expected to rise in the coming days and weeks as search-and-rescue crews work tirelessly to find survivors,” the OCHA report said.

The revised death toll came as international aid started trickling in, with the UN and countries in Europe and the Middle East offering relief to survivors, including 40,000 people who have been displaced in the wake of the disaster.

The aid includes essential medicines, food, tents, blankets and hygiene kits, as well as heavy machinery to help clear the debris and body bags to allow corpses to be moved.

At Derna’s seafront on Saturday – where a wrecked car could be seen perched on top of concrete storm breakers and driftwood was strewn across muddy pools – diggers worked to clear the path for rescue teams and a helicopter scanned the sea for bodies.

Kamal al-Siwi, the official in charge of the identification of missing people, said more than 450 bodies had been recovered in the past three days from the seashore, including 10 from under rubble.

“The work is ongoing and is very, very, very complicated,” he told the Reuters news agency. “This operation, in my opinion, needs months and years.”

Rescue members from the NGO IAE work in the aftermath of a powerful storm and heavy rainfall,
Rescue members from the NGO IAE work in Derna [NGO IAE/Handout via Reuters]

A week after the disaster, hopes of finding survivors are dimming.

Al Jazeera’s Mohamed al-Bakkali, reporting from Derna, said he saw rescuers recover at least 10 bodies from the coast on Saturday morning. “Chances of finding any survivors are very slim. Instead, rescuers are finding more bodies than survivors,” he said.

The devastating flooding brought by Storm Daniel was exacerbated by poor infrastructure in Libya, which was plunged into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In Derna, which has an estimated population of at least 120,000, entire districts were swept away or buried in brown mud after two dams south of the city broke on Sunday night, unleashing torrents of floodwater down a usually dry riverbed.

“We were all taken by surprise. We never expected such a catastrophe,” Derna resident Khalid told Al Jazeera. “I lost my young daughter. May God accept her and have mercy … we are helpless. God almighty is our rock.”

Turkey-based journalist Nour el-Jebri, who hails from Derna, said dozens of her family members were stuck on the roof of their two-storey house for a whole night as water from the collapsed dams inundated their house.

“It was a very tragic night. They could hear people shouting and screaming … as the water took them towards the sea. They were helpless,” el-Jebri told Al Jazeera from the Turkish city of Istanbul. “My family is not in a very good mental state.”

The UN humanitarian affairs office has launched an appeal for $71m for those affected.

The World Health Organization said on Saturday it had flown in enough emergency aid to reach nearly 250,000 people affected by Storm Daniel across eastern Libya, including essential medicines, surgery supplies and body bags for the deceased.

Saudi Arabia announced the departure of its first aid flight to Libya and Russia said the third of its aid flights had arrived carrying a mobile hospital.

Meanwhile, an Italian naval ship docked in Derna with supplies, including tents, blankets, water pumps and tractors, Italy’s embassy in Libya said, posting photos of smaller vessels bringing equipment ashore.

Libya Flooding
People look for survivors in Derna, Libya [Yousef Murad/Reuters]

Rescue and reconstruction will be a challenge as Libya is now run by two administrations – one based in the capital Tripoli and another administration in the country’s east.

Renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, who backs the eastern administration, visited Derna on Friday. His forces have now allowed entry to aid convoys dispatched by the rival government in a sign of cooperation to ensure aid gets to where it is needed.

Caroline Holt, the director of disaster, climate and crises at the International Red Cross, said the presence of landmines across Libya due to the ongoing civil war will be one of several challenges in trying to get aid to those affected by the floods.

“We know that there will be security issues on the ground such as unexploded landmines. When a flood this size comes through and disturbs the earth, to the extent that this one has, those landmines, that may once upon a time had been mapped clearly and we understood the location of them, now all of that will be disturbed,” she told Al Jazeera.

More than 1,000 people have been buried in mass graves, according to the UN, drawing warnings from aid groups about the risk of contaminating water or causing mental distress to families of the deceased.

However, the head of Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control, Hayder al-Sayah, said there was little risk from corpses unless they were carrying diseases.

But he said recorded cases of diarrhoea had risen to 150 from 55 on Friday due to people drinking polluted water.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies