In the aftermath of a flash flood likened to a tsunami, emergency teams in Derna, Libya, are racing against time to locate the thousands still missing after the calamity that claimed the lives of at least 4,000 people.
The deluge, triggered by a surge of water from two upstream dams, has transformed Derna into a nightmarish wasteland, with entire city blocks obliterated and an unknown number of individuals swept into the Mediterranean.
Central neighbourhoods on both sides of the river, which typically runs dry during this season, now bear the scars of this natural disaster, resembling a path of destruction left by a colossal steamroller. Trees, buildings, and vehicles have been uprooted, some of which now rest on the port’s breakwaters.
Survivors recall the horror of the sudden rise in water levels, with one man describing the terrifying experience of being swept away with his mother. “The water was rising with us until we got to the fourth floor, the water was up to the second floor,” he recounted.
As the city grapples with the immense loss, hundreds of body bags line the mud-covered streets, awaiting mass burials. Grieving residents scour the debris-filled streets in search of missing loved ones, while bulldozers work tirelessly to clear the rubble and heaps of sand.
Yann Fridez, the head of the Libya delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, described the disaster as “violent and brutal,” noting the destruction of buildings and infrastructure. Families are still searching for missing relatives, and the floodwaters have started washing up dead bodies on the shore.
The catastrophe was exacerbated by hurricane-strength Storm Daniel, aggravated by Libya’s frail infrastructure, which has struggled since the fall of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011. Had early warning and emergency management systems functioned correctly, many lives could have been spared, said UN World Meteorological Organisation chief Petteri Taalas.
Access to Derna remains severely hindered due to the extensive damage to roads, bridges, and essential utilities. Climate experts have attributed the disaster to a changing climate coupled with Libya’s deteriorating infrastructure.
Storm Daniel, which intensified during an unusually hot summer, has already wreaked havoc in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece, causing widespread flooding and casualties.
UN rights commissioner Volker Turk stressed that it serves as a grim reminder of the devastating impact of climate change on our world.