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‘Sea is constantly dumping bodies’: fears Libya flood death toll may hit 20,000

Full scale of devastation in north African nation still not clear as aid agencies struggle to reach cut-off areas

It has now been more than three days since Libya’s eastern port city of Derna was practically flattened as Storm Daniel unleashed its wrath on a city that was mostly fast asleep.

Usama al-Husadi, a 52-year-old driver, has been searching for his wife and five children since the storm struck on Sunday night, bursting dams above the city, the resulting floods engulfing everything in their path.

“I walked around, searching for them … I went to all the hospitals and schools but no luck,” al-Husadi said sobbing, dialling his wife’s number over and over, only to get no reply.

“We lost at least 50 members from my father’s family, between missing and dead,” he said.

Members of Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya search for people in the rubble of the city of Derna (Photo: The Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya)
Members of Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya search for people in the rubble of the city of Derna (Photo: The Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya)
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Like al-Husadi, many people have lost dozens of relatives to the disaster.

More than 6,000 people are dead and that number is likely to double or even quadruple, Islamic Relief warned late Wednesday.

The Libyan Red Crescent said on Thursday morning that a further 10,000 people are missing, a tally that could be higher.

“This gives you an indication of the limited infrastructure in Libya. The storm hit Greece as well as Libya. But in Greece, there were six deaths and in Libya 6,000,” Salah Aboulgasem, deputy director of partner development at Islamic Relief, told Al Jazeera.

Before arriving in Libya, Storm Daniel had struck Greece, killing 15 people and causing widespread destruction.

Derna has borne the brunt of the disaster, its Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi said on Wednesday, estimating the number of deaths in the city could reach between 18,000 to 20,000.

“During the morning, the sun is quite strong. The smell and the warmth of the bodies rotting, it’s really sad to say, but that’s the reality underneath the buildings. So it’s a very graphic and harrowing situation,” said al-Ghaithi.

More than 70 of Derna’s dead were workers who migrated from a single Upper Egyptian village, al-Sharif. A day earlier, hundreds there attended a mass funeral for the victims.

The risk of water-borne and other diseases is also quite high, Ahmed al-Mandhari, regional director of the World Health Organization for the Eastern Mediterranean, warned on Thursday in an interview with Sky News Arabia.

As of Wednesday, at least 30,000 people had been displaced by the flooding in Derna, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said.

As the devastation piles on, journalists are reportedly being stopped from entering Derna by the Libyan National Army, their phones confiscated, according to sources.

Al Jazeera has not been able to independently verify this claim.

The storm also hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, where Islamic Relief is focusing operations, as well as Sousa and Marj.

Rescuers retrieved at least 150 bodies on Wednesday from the sea off Bayda, bringing the death tally in the town to about 200, according to Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance centre in eastern Libya. Al Jazeera