Death toll hits 11,300 as search-and-rescue crews work in flood-hit eastern Libya

Rescue teams search for survivors in Derna, Libya, Sept.13, 2023. [AP Photo]

Search-and-rescue teams worked Thursday in eastern Libya, where devastating floods left thousands of people dead and thousands more missing.

The Libyan Red Crescent said the death toll from Sunday's floods in the city of Derna had risen to 11,300, and an additional 10,100 people were reported missing.

The Associated Press quoted eastern Libya's health minister, Othman Abduljaleel, as saying 3,000 bodies had been buried, with 2,000 more still being processed.

Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, the mayor of Derna, told al-Arabia television that the death toll could reach 20,000.

Derna was the hardest-hit area, with torrential rain and dam failures wrecking buildings, burying areas in mud and washing people out to sea.

Eastern Libya officials issued warnings and on Saturday ordered residents to evacuate coastal areas. But there was no warning about the dams collapsing.

The storm also killed about 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, the health minister said.

World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas told reporters Thursday in Geneva that "most of the human casualties" could have been avoided if Libya had a functional weather service.

"If they would have been a normally operating meteorological service, they could have issued warnings," he said. "The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out the evacuation."

The U.N. humanitarian office issued an emergency appeal for $71.4 million to respond to the urgent needs of 250,000 Libyans most affected. About 884,000 people live in areas directly affected by the rain and flooding, the office said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would send money to relief organizations and coordinate with Libyan authorities and the U.N.

The international aid effort has included teams from Italy, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Also speaking Thursday in Geneva, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the agency was deploying contingency supplies that already were in the country, and that 28 tons of trauma, surgical and emergency supplies were scheduled to arrive Friday from the WHO hub in Dubai.

Tedros said WHO also had activated its network of emergency medical teams and was releasing $2 million from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies to support its response.

The International Organization for Migration said Wednesday that the flooding had displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, as well as thousands more in other areas.

Atiyah Alhasadi, 30, a teacher from Derna, told VOA's Heather Murdock he was in his home in the center of the city when he heard what sounded like "20 million drums exploding," and water crashed in, rising 50 meters above the houses.

Alhasadi said he and his family went to the roof of the building, because the lower floors were flooded immediately, and watched the water rise to the fourth or fifth floors of some buildings. He said his two aunts on the first floor died in the initial rush of water, but his family was able to escape to a relative's home on higher ground.

Now, he said, he is with five or six families in one small house, searching for a vehicle to get to Benghazi or another town.

"We can't find gasoline, fuel or water," he said.

Alhasadi said people also needed mattresses and medicine, but there was no available humanitarian aid to be found. He noted people were sleeping on the streets without tents and said the only hospital was barely functioning. It was just a makeshift hospital, while the actual one was under construction.

Hesham Gasar, 42, a diplomatic security guard, told VOA he was in Tripoli when the flooding started, and he immediately drove to Derna. He said the eight members of his cousin's family were missing.

"We are trying to find missing people," he said. "Everything washed away with floods — houses, money, belongings. Everything was taken. It's like a nightmare.

"Some people survived, but they are looking for their families and finding themselves alone and wishing they died with them," he said. "It's an unreal feeling."