Aid Reaches Libya After Catastrophic Floods Kill Thousands

As two dams collapsed and storm waters tore through the streets of the Libyan city of Derna, carrying bodies and buildings with them, Ruba Hatem Yassine, her pregnant sister and several older relatives clambered up a neighbor’s ladder to the roof to flee the grasp of the rushing flood below.

From there, they scampered from rooftop to rooftop along their narrow street, Ms. Yassine, 24, recounted on Wednesday, two days after her terrifying ordeal. Eventually, they sought shelter in a small storage unit on one of the rooftops and watched for hours as the water overwhelmed the city.

They could hear their neighbors — trapped in half-destroyed homes by rising water or under rubble — screaming, “Save us, save us,” Ms. Yassine said, speaking by phone from a friend’s home in the nearby town of Marj. Once the floodwaters had somewhat subsided, other survivors helped her family of nine come down from the roof to safety.

They waded through the knee-deep water, leaving everything behind.

“We walked out barefoot and saw our friends and neighbors dying around us,” she said. “And we couldn’t do anything.”

More than 10,000 people were missing, Libyan authorities said on Wednesday, after the catastrophic floods that pummeled the country’s northeast.

The death toll, which has surpassed 5,000, could reach up to 20,000 based on the number of districts that were wiped out, the mayor of Derna, Abdulmenam Al-Ghaithi, told Al Arabiya television.

A North African nation polarized by years of civil war and intense political and territorial divisions, Libya was poorly prepared for Storm Daniel, which swept across the Mediterranean Sea, pummeling its coastline and quickly destroying poorly maintained infrastructure.

The country is split between an internationally recognized government in the western half based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east. That includes Derna, where the main authority is the Libyan National Army. The rival governments have further complicated rescue and aid efforts.

Desperately needed aid was trickling into the eastern half of the country by Wednesday. But with roads and bridges damaged or cut off, access to the hardest-hit city, Derna, on the Mediterranean coast, remained a major hurdle to bringing in help, according to international aid groups.

Beyond the dead and the missing, more than 34,000 people have been displaced, aid groups said.

“The ultimate figures won’t be clear within a day or two or three,” Kamal Abubaker, who runs a government agency that tracks down and identifies missing people, told The Times. “It may take weeks, months or even years, as the destruction is vast. The waters have dispersed the corpses over tens of kilometers.”

Islam Azouz, an aid worker from Derna, said he lost dozens of relatives. He was outside the city when the flood ripped through and when he returned he said he could no longer recognize the city where he grew up, which had been swallowed by water or mud. Those who survived, he said, were waiting to hear news of those who are still missing.

“People are waiting by the sea,” he said. “Today 40 bodies washed up ashore.”

Faris al-Tayeh, who is heading a network of volunteer relief workers, said he managed to reach Derna on Monday afternoon despite treacherous, torn-up roads packed with people fleeing.

“We could never have imagined what we saw: corpses in the ocean, whole families wiped out, fathers and sons and brothers stacked on top of each other,” he said. “Whole buildings dragged into the water with their residents still inside.”

The entire city had been split in two by the flooding, he added.

“To get from one side to the other, you need to travel around for over a hundred kilometers,” said Mr. al-Tayeh, who is now organizing an aid convoy to Derna.

The failures of the dams raised alarm over Libya’s dilapidated infrastructure.

On Tuesday, the mayor of the northeastern town of Tocra told al-Masar, a Libyan television channel, that a third dam in eastern Libya, the Jaza dam, was filled with water and on the brink of collapse. That dam, between Derna and the main eastern city, Benghazi, needs maintenance to prevent another disaster, he warned.

Hours later, a military official with the Libyan National Army, the main authority in the east, raised concerns about the safety of yet another dam, the Qattara, next to Benghazi. A government statement sought to assure residents that both dams were functioning and under control. Nevertheless, the government said it was installing water pumps to relieve pressure on the Jaza dam.

The flooding began after heavy rains over the weekend burst through two dams south of Derna, unleashing torrents of water through the city of nearly 100,000 people. Much of the city was destroyed as entire neighborhoods, including homes, schools and mosques, were swept away.

The Derna City Council has called for the opening of a maritime passageway to the city and for urgent international intervention.

Rescue teams and some aid deliveries began reaching Derna on Monday via the damaged roads that made passage more difficult and time-consuming, said Tawfiq al-Shukri, a spokesman for Libya’s Red Crescent, a nonprofit aid group whose volunteers have helped evacuate residents and which is leading the search-and-rescue efforts.

Aid is also being sent to the airport in Al Bayda, he said, one of the towns in the stricken area.

International aid sent to Benghazi, more than 180 miles by road from Derna, has already been dispatched to the disaster zone, Mr. al-Shukri said, including rescue teams from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

“When the aid arrives, it is immediately sent to the affected areas,” he said. “The needs are greater than our abilities and the aid that has come.”

Both the western and eastern entrances to Derna were not passable, so the only way into the city was from the south on an unpaved road, slowing the delivery of aid and the arrival of rescue teams, said Bashir Ben Amer, an aid worker with the International Rescue Committee in Libya.

But because of the wet conditions, there is concern that the one functioning road may not hold up under the demands of the convoys pouring into the city, he added. Many of the more than 30,000 people left homeless in the city have not tried to leave, he said.

“Most people are staying inside the city, either looking for loved ones, or they are burying them,” he said.

But the Libyan National Army on Wednesday urged residents to leave, saying that the army was taking over Derna to coordinate relief efforts, according to a report on al-Masar.

As with other natural disasters, climate change factors into storms in the Mediterranean Sea and Libya is especially vulnerable. Warming causes the waters of the Mediterranean to expand and its level to rise, eroding shorelines and contributing to flooding, according to the United Nations. Low-lying coastal areas, where much of Libya’s population lives, are at particular risk.

The Libyan Red Crescent reported early Wednesday on Facebook that, for a third day, its volunteers were searching for some of the thousands still missing, combing fields, trails and riverbanks.

“No missing people have been found at this moment,” the group said.

The group published a document on Facebook listing the survivors from Derna. By Wednesday evening, it had grown to more than 300 names.

“The support is trickling in. We just need more of it,” said Dax Roque, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Libya. “The response in Libya for so long has been underfunded. There’s an urgent need for international help.”

He welcomed a U.N. announcement that it was allocating $10 million from its emergency response fund to help those affected by the floods.

Shipments of supplies, including body bags and medical equipment, left early Tuesday morning from Tripoli for Benghazi, the Tripoli government said. A convoy of doctors, nurses and other rescue volunteers had already arrived in Benghazi that morning.

Most needed, the Tripoli government said, were rescue workers and inspectors and others who specialize in floods.

“The infrastructure has been destroyed, which makes it very difficult for emergency medical workers to reach these areas,” said Basheer Omar, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya. He added that local authorities had to disable the electrical grid for fear that people would be electrocuted in the floods.

His organization has been sending supplies and technical support to the Libyan Red Crescent.

“These areas are totally disconnected. There are no phones, no food, no electricity. So the situation is really dire in these areas,” he said. “It’s beyond the capacity of the authorities in Libya, so Libya needs the support of the international community.”

Vivian Nereim, Isabella Kwai and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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