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Libya flood: Search continues for more than 10,000 missing

September 15, 2023

Rescue workers in Derna, where thousands have died, are racing to find thousands of missing people. An inquiry is set to be launched, but anger is mounting at the government's response to the disaster.

In this photo provided by Turkey's IHH humanitarian aid group, rescuers retrieve the body of a flooding victim in Derna, Libya, Wednesday, Sept.13, 2023
Search teams are combing streets, wrecked buildings, and even the sea to look for bodies in DernaImage: IHH/AP/picture alliance

Officials said on Friday that the eastern Libyan city of Derna has been closed off as rescue workers continue to search for more than 10,000 people who are still missing after devastating floods.

Estimated death tolls varied, with some officials saying over 5,000 dead but other estimates of more than 10,000.

The United Nations gave a death toll of more than 11,300 in Derna alone, with another 170 people confirmed dead elsewhere in the country, citing the Red Crescent. However, the Red Crescent later rejected that number. 

Estimates and death tolls have varied widely, reflecting the absence of central power that has plagued Libya since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Eastern Libya's Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel said rescue teams were still searching wrecked buildings in the city center and divers were combing the sea into which hundreds of bodies were swept by the torrent, while international aid has also poured in.

Senior politicians from both sides of a country split between rival western and eastern administrations, including presidential council chairman Mohamed al-Menfi in the east, and the interim prime minister of the internationally recognized Tripoli-based government, Abdel Hamid Dabaiba, have called for an inquiry.

Led by the country's attorney general, Al-Siddiq Al-Sour, one of the few officials whose jurisdiction theoretically transcends the divide, the inquiry is intended to "to hold accountable everyone who made a mistake or neglected to take action that resulted in the collapse of the city's dams," according to al-Menfi.

Red Crescent: More than 11,000 dead in Libya floods

'Both a natural and a manmade disaster'

Public anger has been mounting at the perceived government failure and corruption.

"This disaster is both a natural disaster and a manmade disaster," Libyan security expert and commentator Aya Burweila told DW. "Storm Daniel is a natural disaster, but the horrific consequences that we saw afterward were manmade. And this, of course, goes down to corruption."

Calling oil-rich Libya "one of the most corrupt countries in the world," Burweila described a state in which "there are no meaningful audits of government spending," and in which "public funds go to governments that are not publicly elected."

"What happens when a government is not accountable to the people? What you get is self-servants, not public servants. And this is the problem that Libya has gone through for decades."

No early-warning system

Burweila also highlighted the absence of investment in sophisticated early warning systems, which can send notifications directly to people's smartphones in the event of emergency, as is commonplace in Europe and more developed countries.

"It was a government failure to warn the people of Derna," she said, concurring with the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO), whose head Petteri Taalas told reporters on Thursday that, if the system in Libya had worked properly, "the emergency management forces would have been able to carry out the evacuation of the people, and we could have avoided most of the human casualties."

Libya's National Meteorological Centre (NMC) did issue extreme weather warnings 72 hours in advance and had notified governmental authorities by email, urging them to take preventative measures. But the WMO said it was "not clear whether [the warnings] were effectively disseminated."

Libyans furious with authorities over devastating floods

mf/fb (Reuters, AP)