DERNA, Libya — The city of Darna has buried thousands of people in mass graves, officials said Thursday, as relief teams scoured the ruins and the mayor said the death toll could triple.
Sunday night’s deluge swept away entire families and exposed the vulnerabilities of the oil-rich country, which has been mired in conflict since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Health authorities have confirmed 5,500 deaths and say there are 9,000 missing.
A look at the most recent events.
WHAT HAPPENED IN LIBYA?
Daniel, an unusually strong storm in the Mediterranean, caused deadly flooding in towns in eastern Libya, of which Darna was the worst affected. As the storm hit the coast Sunday night, neighbors said they heard explosions as levees outside the city collapsed. A torrent that invaded Wadi Derna, a valley that runs through the city, destroyed buildings and swept people into the sea.
A U.N. official said Thursday that most of the deaths could have been avoided.
“A normally functioning meteorological service would have been able to issue the warnings”the head of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, told reporters in Geneva. “Emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out the evacuation.”
The WMO said days ago that the National Meteorological Center had issued warnings 72 hours before the flood, notifying government authorities by email and through the media. It was unclear whether any action was taken on those warnings.
HOW DOES THE DISASTER AFFECT THE CONFLICT IN LIBYA?
The overwhelming devastation reflects both the intensity of the storm and the country’s vulnerability. Libya has been divided between rival governments for most of the last decade – one in the east and the other in the west – and one result is the widespread abandonment of infrastructure.
The dikes that collapsed outside Derna were built in the 1970s and have not been maintained for years, according to local press.
The disaster sparked a rare moment of unity, as government agencies from across the country rushed to help affected areas.
While the eastern government, based in Tobruk, leads the rescue efforts, the western government, based in Tripoli, allocated the equivalent of 412 million dollars for reconstruction in Derna and other eastern towns and an armed group in Tripoli sent a caravan with humanitarian aid.
WHAT HAPPENS TODAY?
Derna has begun burying the dead, mostly in mass graves, eastern Health Minister Othman Abduljalil said.
By Thursday morning there were more than 3,000 bodies buried, the minister said, and another 2,000 were in process. He said most of the dead were buried in mass graves outside Derna and the rest in nearby towns.
Abduljalil said rescuers were still scouring the ruins in the city center and divers were exploring the waters off the coast.
There would be an incalculable number of dead under the mud and mountains of rubble that rise up to four meters high. Rescuers have had problems carrying heavy equipment, as the waters have swept away or still block access roads to the area.
HOW MANY ARE THE DEAD?
Health authorities said the death toll in Derna numbered 5,500 as of Thursday morning. The number was likely to rise as the search continued, and at least 9,000 people were missing, said Ossama Ali, spokesman for an emergency service in the east.
“Some bodies may not be found, particularly those that were swept out to sea”he noted.
Local officials indicated the figure could be much higher. Speaking to Saudi broadcaster Al Arabia, Dernaa Mayor Abdel-Raham al-Ghaithi said it could reach 20,000, given the number of neighborhoods destroyed by water.
The storm killed about 170 people in the eastern Libyan towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, the health minister said.
Among the dead were 84 Egyptians, more than 70 of them from a village in the southern province of Beni Suef. Libyan media said dozens of Sudanese migrants died in the disaster.
DO SURVIVORS RECEIVE HELP?
Floods have displaced around 3,000 people in Dernaaccording to the International Organization for Migration, and thousands more left their homes in towns in the east of the country, the UN agency said.
The floods damaged or destroyed many of the access roads, which has hindered the arrival of rescuers and international humanitarian aid. Local authorities were able to clear some routes, and in the last 48 hours humanitarian caravans have been able to reach the city.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it has sent 6,000 body bags as well as medical supplies and food to affected populations.
International aid began arriving this week in Benghazi, 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of Derna. Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have sent rescuers and supplies, as have Turkey, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. The UK and German governments have sent supplies.
President Joe Biden said the United States will send money to relief organizations and coordinate with Libyan and U.N. authorities to send additional aid.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery in London contributed to this report.