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Libya’s death toll tops 5,000 as aid trickles in after flood

Men walk past debris of buildings caused by flash floods in Derna, eastern Libya, on Monday.  (AFP/GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/TNS)
By Hatem Mohareb and Tarek El-Tablawy Bloomberg News

The death toll from raging floods in Libya’s port town of Derna surged to at least 5,000, as rescuers scrambled to find thousands more missing after a devastating storm ravaged the nation’s northeastern coast.

Hardest hit by Mediterranean storm Daniel was Derna. A deluge of water swept through the city of 90,000 after two dams broke, washing away buildings and even neighborhoods. Officials in the eastern part of the divided OPEC nation said water levels had reached the fourth or fifth floors of some buildings.

At least 5,000 were killed as a result of the storm and ensuing flooding in Derna and another 7,000 wounded, Osama Ali, spokesman for Libya’s Emergency Authority, told Bloomberg by phone. Estimates of the number still missing ranged between 5,000 and 10,000, according to various international and Libyan officials.

The death toll has now eclipsed the fatalities in Morocco, where more than 2,900 were killed by the most powerful earthquake to hit the North African kingdom in more than a century. The scale of the destruction and the difficulty of the rescue and relief effort in both countries are also comparable.

But compounding the challenges in Libya is its long-running political division. Rival administrations in the west and east mean the country, despite its oil wealth, has suffered a dearth of investment in infrastructure and social services.

In a sign of some convergence after the tragedy, Libya’s rival governments pledged $414 million in assistance to Derna and other areas affected in the east. Neighboring Egypt dispatched its military chief of staff and other officers, along with relief supplies, while Algeria sent in its interior and health ministers, along with rescue workers, according to Arab state media.

Libya’s situation “is the very definition of a disaster,” Othman Abdel-Jaleel, health minister for Libya’s east, said in a clip carried by Al Masar TV. “The corpses are still scattered” in various hospitals awaiting identification.

Libyan officials have previously put the death toll at no less than 2,300 people so far and said the number missing was anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 – with that higher estimate equating to roughly 10% of Derna’s population. Libya’s envoy to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told reporters in Geneva about 10,000 people were unaccounted for.The death toll from storm Daniel has surpassed that of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf coast of the U.S. in 2005 and left over 1,800 dead – making it the second-deadliest storm in American modern history.

Khalifa Haftar, who heads the most powerful military force in Libya’s east, said rescue efforts were underway. The Libyan National Army, which he heads, said Tuesday that 25%-45% of Derna had disappeared, according to Arab satellite channel Arabiya.

In an apparent effort to deflect potential blame in Derna, the LNA said it had issued repeated warnings in the area about the storm.