In Libya, a Grim Struggle to Bury the Dead From Devastating Floods

Aid workers were engaged in a grim struggle on Friday to handle the thousands of victims of the floods that devastated Libya’s northeastern coast, burying hundreds at a time in mass graves as the chaotic response to the disaster entered its fifth day.

“There are thousands of bodies,” said Sarraj bin Taher, a Red Crescent paramedic in Derna. “They put over 250 people in a grave. There’s no time, and there are concerns about them decomposing.”

Torrential 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 to sea. The authorities say the death toll runs into the thousands and many more people are 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.

Several members of Mr. bin Taher’s extended family — including cousins and his wife’s brother — were killed in the flooding. Two of his colleagues also died when rising water wrecked a center being used by the local Red Crescent branch to coordinate their response to the crisis, he said.

Men carried the body of a flood victim to a mass grave in Derna on Tuesday.Credit…Ayman Al-Sahili/Reuters

Residents who did not flee the city have mostly gathered in temporary shelters set up in schools, sleeping on classroom floors, Mr. bin Taher said. “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, a top Libyan health official affiliated with the country’s eastern government, told reporters that the documented toll stood at 3,065 dead and 4,227 reported missing. Other officials have offered estimates ranging from more than 5,000 to more than 7,000 killed and at least 10,000 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. The Libyan Red Crescent says the number may be closer to 10,000 or 11,000.

Libya was poorly prepared for Storm Daniel, which displayed its destructive power last week in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, where it killed more than a dozen people. The storm then swept across the Mediterranean Sea, pummeling the Libyan coastline and destroying poorly maintained infrastructure.

Many Libyans saw the disaster as a symptom of the country’s political dysfunction. The country is split between two rival governments — an internationally-backed one in the west and another in the east — and has seen years of intermittent civil war. In a 2021 report by the Libyan state audit bureau, a government watchdog, said funds allocated to maintain Derna’s two dams had not been used.

Men tried to comfort each other near damaged buildings in Derna on Thursday.Credit…Abdullah Doma/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 aligned with the eastern Libyan government. “What took place in our country was an incomparable natural disaster.”

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