Wall of water ‘erased everything in its way’ in Libya

Wall of water ‘erased everything in its way’ in Libya

The destruction came to Derna and other parts of eastern Libya on Sunday night, local time. As the storm pounded the coast, Derna residents said they heard loud explosions and realised that dams outside the city had collapsed. Flash floods were unleashed down Wadi Derna, a river running from the mountains through the city and into the sea.

The wall of water “erased everything in its way,” said one resident, Ahmed Abdalla.

Derna, Libya, after storm Daniel unleashed a torrent that broke two dams and wiped out entire suburbs.Credit: AP

Videos posted online by residents showed large swaths of mud and wreckage where the raging waters had swept away neighbourhoods on both banks of the river. Multi-storey apartment buildings that once were well back from the river had facades ripped away and concrete floors collapsed. Cars lifted by the flood were left dumped on top of each other.

Libya’s National Meteorological Centre said it issued early warnings for storm Daniel, an “extreme weather event”, 72 hours before its occurrence, and notified all governmental authorities by email and through media … “urging them to take preventive measures”. It said that Bayda recorded a record 41.4 centimetres of rain from Sunday to Monday.

On Tuesday, local emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents dug through rubble looking for the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water.

Many bodies were believed trapped under rubble or had been washed out into the Mediterranean Sea, said eastern Libya’s Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel.

Mediterranean storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that broke dams and swept away entire neighbourhoods away in multiple coastal towns in Derna city.

Mediterranean storm Daniel caused devastating floods in Libya that broke dams and swept away entire neighbourhoods away in multiple coastal towns in Derna city.Credit: AP

“We were stunned by the amount of destruction … the tragedy is very significant, and beyond the capacity of Derna and the government,” Abduljaleel said by the phone from Derna.

Red Crescent teams from other parts of Libya also arrived in Derna on Tuesday morning but extra excavators and other equipment had yet to get there.

Flooding often happens in Libya during rainy season, but rarely with this much destruction. A key question was how the rains were able to burst through two dams outside Derna – whether because of poor maintenance or sheer volume of rain.

Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist and meteorologist at Leipzig University, said with Daniel dumping 440 millimetres of rain in a short time “the infrastructure could probably not cope, leading to the collapse of the dam”. He added that human-induced rises in water surface temperatures likely added to the storm’s intensity.

Local authorities have neglected Derna for years. “Even the maintenance aspect was simply absent. Everything kept being delayed,” said Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow specialising in Libya at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Factionalism also comes into play. Derna was for several years controlled by Islamic militant groups. Military commander Khalifa Hifter, the strongman of the east Libya government, captured the city in 2019 only after months of tough urban fighting.

The eastern government has been suspicious of the city ever since and has sought to sideline its residents from any decision-making, said Harchaoui. “This mistrust might prove calamitous during the upcoming post-disaster period,” he said.

Hifter’s eastern government based in the city of Benghazi is locked in a bitter rivalry with the western government in the capital of Tripoli. Each is backed by powerful militias and by foreign powers. Hifter is also backed by Egypt, Russia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while the west Libya administration is backed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Still, the initial reaction to the disaster brought some crossing of the divide.

The Tripoli-based government of western Libya sent a plane with 12 tonnes of medical supplies and health workers to Benghazi. It also said it had allocated the equivalent of $US412 million ($642 million) for reconstruction in Derna and other eastern towns.

Aeroplanes arrived in Benghazi carrying humanitarian aid and rescue teams from Egypt, Turkey and the UAE. Egypt’s military chief of staff met with Hifter to coordinate aid. Germany, France and Italy said they were also sending rescue personnel and aid.

It was not clear how quickly the aid could be moved to Derna, 250 kilometres east of Benghazi, given conditions on the ground. Ahmed Amdourd, a Derna municipal official, called for a sea corridor to deliver aid and equipment.

Streets are flooded after storm Daniel in Marj, Libya.

Streets are flooded after storm Daniel in Marj, Libya.Credit: Al-Masar TV/AP

President Joe Biden said in a statement the US was sending emergency funds to relief organisations and coordinating with the Libyan authorities and the UN to provide additional support.

“Jill and I send our deepest condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones in the devastating floods in Libya,” he said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead. The Medical Centre of Bayda, the main hospital, was flooded and patients had to be evacuated, according to footage shared by the centre on Facebook.


Other towns that suffered included Susa, Marj and Shahatt, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.

Northe-ast Libya is one of the country’s most fertile and green regions. The Jabal al-Akhdar area – where Bayda, Marj and Shahatt are located – has one of the country’s highest average annual rainfalls, according to the World Bank.