U.N. warns Libya could face “second devastating crisis” if disease spreads in decimated Derna

Derna, Libya ā€” The United Nations warned Monday that disease outbreaks could bring “a second devastating crisis” to Libya a week after a huge flash flood shattered the coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths. Local officials, aid agencies and the World Health Organization “are concerned about the risk of disease outbreak, particularly from contaminated water and the lack of sanitation”, the United Nations said.

The flash flood that is confirmed to have killed nearly 3,300 people and left thousands more missing came after the war-scarred North African country was lashed by the hurricane-strength Storm Daniel on September 10.

Tens of thousands of traumatized residents are homeless and badly in need of clean water, food and basic supplies amid a growing risk of cholera, diarrhea, dehydration and malnutrition, U.N. agencies have warned.

LIBYA-FLOOD
A man walks past the rubble of a destroyed building in Libya’s eastern city of Derna, Sept. 18, 2023, following deadly flash floods.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty


Libya’s disease control center banned citizens in the disaster zone from drinking water from local mains, warning that it is “polluted.”

“There is no life left.”

Rescue teams from several European and Arab countries kept up the grim search for bodies in the mud-caked wasteland of smashed buildings, crushed cars and uprooted trees.

The waters submerged a densely populated 2.3-square-mile area in Derna, damaging 1,500 buildings of which 891 were totally razed, according to a preliminary report released by the Tripoli government based on satellite images.

One bereaved Derna resident, Abdul Wahab al-Masouri, lamented what has become of his city.

“We grew up here, we were raised here… But we’ve come to hate this place, we’ve come to hate what it has become,” he said. “The buildings, the neighborhood, the villagers, the sheikhs… the wadi has returned to the state it was 1,000 years ago. People live in caves, the city looks dead, barren, there is no life left.”

LIBYA-FLOOD
Rescue teams walk in a destroyed area in Libya’s eastern city of Derna, Sept. 18, 2023, following deadly flash floods.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty


Bulldozers cleared roads from caked mud, including at a mosque as a foul smell permeated the air and a woman prayed for the children and grandchildren killed by the flooding.

Death toll unclear in post-flood chaos

Amid the chaos, the true death toll remained unknown, with untold numbers swept into the sea. Soldier Hamza al-Khafifi, 45, described to AFP finding unclothed bodies washing up on the coastline where “bodies were stuck between rocks.”

The health minister of the divided country’s eastern administration, Othman Abdeljalil, has said 3,283 people were confirmed dead in Derna. Libyan officials and humanitarian groups have warned, however, that the final toll could be much higher, with many thousands still missing.

The Libyan Red Crescent has said that some 11,000 people were killed, with another 10,000 still missing and presumed dead.


Libya death toll expected to continue rising after devastating flooding

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Emergency response teams and aid have been deployed from countries including Egypt, France, Greece, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Five members of a Greek rescue team were killed when their vehicle collided with a car carrying a Libyan family on the road from Benghazi to Derna on Sunday, officials said. Three members of the family also died.

Egypt dispatched the “Gamal Abdel Nasser” Mistral helicopter carrier to the eastern Tobruk military base across the border to serve as a field hospital with over 100 beds, Egyptian media reported.

France said it had set up a field hospital in Derna.

On Monday, the United Nations, which has launched an emergency appeal for more than $71 million, said nine of its agencies were delivering aid and support to survivors, and working to prevent the spread of diseases.

The European Union on Monday said it was releasing 5.2 million euros (around $5.5 million) in humanitarian funding for Libya, bringing total EU aid so far to more than 5.7 million euros.

Responding to a disaster in a divided Libya

In the face of the tragedy, rival Libyan administrations appear to have set aside their differences for now after calls from aid groups and several countries to collaborate in the aid effort.

Libya has been split between two rival governments – a U.N.-backed administration in the capital Tripoli and another in the disaster-hit east – since the overthrow and killing of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising.

The International Organization for Migration’s Libya chief Tauhid Pasha posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the aim now was to channel all authorities “to work together, in coordination.”

On Monday the Tripoli-based government said it launched work to build a temporary bridge that would span the river that cuts through Derna.

The massive flooding caused two upstream river dams in Derna to rupture, sending a tidal wave crashing through the center of the city of 100,000 and sweeping entire residential blocks into the Mediterranean.

U.N. experts have blamed the high death toll on climatic factors as the Mediterranean region has sweltered under an unusually hot summer, and on the legacy of Libya’s war that has depleted its infrastructure, early warning systems and emergency response.

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