The Libyan authorities curbed access to much of the northeastern city of Derna on Friday, as health officials and relief crews struggled to handle thousands of victims of the floods that have devastated the region.
Only emergency medical workers will be allowed to enter the city, after streams of people arrived with no direction or coordination, hampering search-and-rescue efforts, said Osama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance center in the country’s east.
Ordinary Libyans desperately seeking loved ones missing or killed in the flood, and volunteers eager to help and show solidarity with their countrymen, are among those making their way to the city.
The authorities “are still looking for people in collapsed buildings, but the chance of finding survivors is diminishing by the hour,” said Rick Brennan, who directs the World Health Organization’s emergency response for the Eastern Mediterranean. “We expect, unfortunately, that most of the missing will not be found alive,” he added.
The catastrophe has prompted an outpouring of international support, with the United States and several European countries vowing to send aid. But Libya is split into two rival governments — one in the west, based in Tripoli, and one in the east — and its terrain has been torn up by the path of the flood, further complicating relief efforts. Key parts of Derna’s infrastructure, including bridges that once crossed the city’s river basin, were erased by the torrential water.
Rains from Storm Daniel shattered two dams near Derna, on Libya’s northeastern coast, over the weekend, destroying much of the city and washing entire neighborhoods out into the Mediterranean Sea. The authorities say the death toll runs into the thousands, with many more people missing.
By Friday morning, electricity and running water had returned to some parts of Derna, relief workers said, and people were trickling in from outside the city to identify loved ones before they were buried. Some of the bodies had been laid out, wrapped in blankets, in the streets, they said.
“The sea is full of corpses. There are bodies under the rubble. We’re still pulling them out,” said Hawwa el-Bannani, a Benghazi-based doctor who traveled to the city on an aid mission.
At least hundreds were hastily buried in mass graves outside the city, health officials said, in part due to fears that they might spread disease. Three top international health organizations, including the World Health Organization, said in a joint statement on Friday that the corpses of those killed in natural disasters generally posed little such risk.
Residents who did not flee the city have mostly gathered in temporary shelters set up in schools, sleeping on classroom floors, said Sarraj bin Taher, a Red Crescent paramedic in Derna, many still looking for family and friends lost in the flood. “People are in a state of shock,” he said. “The city was wiped out around them.”
The authorities have issued widely varying figures for the dead and missing. On Thursday evening, Othman Abduljalil, the health minister in the eastern Libyan government, told reporters that the documented toll stood at 3,065 dead and 4,227 formally reported missing. On Wednesday night, the mayor of Derna, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, told the Al Arabiya television network that the death toll could reach 20,000. Other Libyan authorities have estimated those missing at over 10,000.
Health officials and aid groups now worry the survivors could face diseases, including from contamination to the water supply.
Many Libyans saw the disaster as a symptom of the country’s political dysfunction. The country, with its split governments, has seen years of intermittent civil war. The Libyan state audit bureau, a government watchdog, said in a 2021 report that funds allocated to maintain Derna’s two dams had not been used.
As the storm approached, the Libyan authorities announced a state of emergency in the east, warning of possible floods. But residents said there were mixed directives. Some said there were calls to evacuate, which no one heeded. Others said they were ordered to stay inside their homes.
Late Wednesday, a senior Libyan official who backs the country’s western government demanded an investigation into both the collapse of the dams and the response to the floods that followed.
“We asked the attorney general to open a comprehensive investigation into the events of the disaster,” Mohamed al-Menfi, the head of the Libyan Presidential Council said in a social media post. “Everyone who made a mistake or neglected either in abstaining or taking actions that resulted in the collapse of the dams in the city of Derna” should be held accountable, he wrote.
In a televised speech on Thursday, Aguila Saleh, the speaker for Libya’s Parliament, appeared to reject accusations that the scale of the devastation was rooted in government mismanagement and neglect.
“Don’t say, ‘If only we’d done this, if only we’d done that,’” said Mr. Saleh, who is part of the eastern Libyan government. “What took place in our country was an incomparable natural disaster.”