Libya floods create ‘disaster zone’ in Derna in Storm Daniel’s wake

A powerful storm that unleashed torrential rain and extreme flooding across northeastern Libya has devastated communities on its Mediterranean coastline, causing widespread damage and an unknown number of fatalities, particularly in the port city of Derna.

Authorities in the east declared Derna a disaster zone Monday after floodwaters burst through its two aging dams, inundating wide swaths of the city and leaving muddy, churning river in their wake.

“Derna is a tragedy, a catastrophe,” said Asmahan Belaoun, a Libyan lawmaker with family in the city.

Two senior officials in the region said Monday that as many as 2,000 people in Derna were feared dead, and thousands more may be missing, but the source for their estimates was unclear. In a phone interview from Benghazi, about 150 miles west of Derna, Belaoun said the water swept away streets and buildings and that she didn’t know if her family members survived.

“All I know is that their buildings are gone,” she said, adding that helicopters were needed to “save what is left to save” in the city.

Libya, which is split between two rival governments, was already coping with crumbling infrastructure — the result of a years-long civil war that broke out after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s.

Telecommunication networks were down in Derna on Monday, Belaoun and other officials said, making it difficult to assess the number of deaths and the true extent of the damage. Unverified videos posted on social media and aired on Libyan news networks showed apocalyptic scenes of a city submerged.

At least 150 people were killed in Derna as a result of the storm, a tropical-storm-like cyclone named Daniel, a local official with the Libyan Red Crescent told Reuters, adding that the organization expected the death toll to rise.

But in a choppy phone interview with a local television station, Osama Hamad, prime minister of the eastern Libyan government, estimated that 2,000 were dead.

“We are alerting all medical apparatuses, all medical bodies, to move to Derna,” he said, his voice dipping in and out from the poor connection. “There are no communications — I had to leave Derna to get this connection.”

The eastern government’s interior minister, Issam Abu Zureibah, also said that at least 1,000 people were killed. “The damages are very serious,” he said in an interview with the Saudi Arabia-based news channel Al-Hadath. “There are areas that were swept away entirely into the sea.”

The last instance of large-scale flooding in Libya was in 2019, when four people died in the southwest of the country, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Storm Daniel wreaked havoc in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria last week, killing at least 26 people in the three countries, according to the Associated Press.

The storm formed amid the same extreme weather pattern linked to deadly flooding in Spain and extreme heat over large parts of western Europe that broke dozens of records.

After it triggered severe flooding in Greece, Daniel transitioned into what is known as a “medicane,” or tropical-like cyclone that occasionally forms over the Mediterranean Sea. The storm became stronger as it drew energy from the abnormally warm waters, a process intensified by human-caused climate change, before drifting to the south and unloading excessive rainfall over northeastern Libya.

Libya’s National Center of Meteorology reported rainfall totals of 414.1 millimeters — more than 16 inches — of rain over 24 hours in Bayda, where at least 12 people were reported dead, according to Floodlist, a website that aggregates flood information. Bayda only receives about half an inch in a typical September and about 21.4 inches of rain in an average year.

About 170 millimeters of rain — 2.75 inches — fell in Al Abraq in the Derna District. Witnesses told Reuters that the floodwaters in Derna reached as high as 10 feet.

The storm was expected to bring heavy rains and flooding to northern Egypt into Tuesday before dissipating. Egyptian’s Meteorological Authority warned residents in the greater Cairo area to prepare for major rainfall. But officials also said that the storm lost most of its energy over the arid terrain of Libya so its intensity was easing.

“We hope for the urgent opening of a sea corridor, and we hope for urgent international interference urgently,” said Ahmad Amadward, a member of Derna’s town council, in a video message carried by Derna’s Municipal Council Facebook page.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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