Residents of Derna in eastern Libya were counting their losses from a flood that devastated swathes of the coastal city as the search for the missing continued on Saturday for a sixth day and more bodies were pulled from the sea.
Central Street, once a focus of economic activity in Derna lined with shops, was largely deserted, the silence broken only by the sound of the wind whistling past mangled buildings as a few people sat disconsolate in the road, sipping coffee and surveying the damage.
“The first thing I’m afraid of is that this will take a long time,” said 44-year-old teacher Tarek Faheem al-Hasadi, whose wife and five young grandchildren were killed in the flood. He and his son survived by climbing onto the roof.
“This needs persistence and I’m afraid that the support that is coming is temporary,” he said between tears, standing guard in front his ruined home, but adding that he was determined not to leave the area.
A three-storey building standing opposite had been swept 60 metres (200 feet) down the road by the floodwaters, Hasadi said.
At Derna’s seafront, where a wrecked car could be seen perched on top of concrete storm breakers and driftwood was strewn across muddy pools, diggers worked to clear the path for rescue teams and a helicopter scanned the sea for bodies.
Entire districts of Derna, with an estimated population of at least 120,000, were swept away or buried in brown mud after two dams south of the city broke on Sunday night unleashing torrents of floodwater down a usually dry riverbed.
The International Organization for Migration mission in Libya has said that more than 5,000 people were presumed dead, with 3,922 deaths registered in hospitals. About 38,640 were displaced in the flood-stricken region.
The true death toll could be far higher, officials say.
“The situation is very, very tragic,” said Qais, a rescue worker from Tunisia at the seafront who only gave his first name. “We have never seen such damage caused by water.”
More than 450 bodies had been recovered in the past three days from the seashore, including 10 from under the rubble, said Kamal Al-Siwi, the official in charge of missing people.
“The work is ongoing and is very, very, very complicated,” he told Reuters. “This operation in my opinion, needs months and years.”
The World Health Organization said on Saturday it had flown in enough emergency aid to reach nearly 250,000 people affected by Storm Daniel across eastern Libya, including essential medicines, surgery supplies and body bags for the deceased.
Saudi Arabia announced the departure of its first aid flight to Libya and Russia said the third of its aid flights had arrived carrying a mobile hospital.
An Italian naval ship docked in Derna with supplies including tents, blankets, water pumps and tractors, Italy’s Embassy in Libya said, posting photos of smaller vessels bringing equipment ashore.
More than 1,000 people have been buried in mass graves, according to the United Nations, drawing warnings from aid groups about the risk of contaminating water or causing mental distress to families of the deceased.
The head of Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control, Hayder Al-Sayah, said there was little risk from corpses unless they were carrying diseases, but that recorded cases of diarrhoea had risen to 150 from 55 on Friday due to people drinking polluted water.
Derna has been hit hard by the turmoil and conflict in Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi during a popular uprising in 2011.
It was controlled for several years by jihadist militants before forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) besieged and took control of the city in 2019.
Infrastructure across Libya has been degraded amid the political paralysis of the past decade, and experts had warned that Derna faced potential disaster if maintenance work was not carried out on the dams outside the city.
Libya’s continuing political divisions, with rival administrations and parliaments in the east and west, could hamper the aid effort.