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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After Libya floods, a chaotic scramble for rescuers

An aerial view of Derna, Libya, on Thursday. Torrential rains burst through two dams near Derna, on Libya’s northeastern coast, destroying much of the city.

By Raja Abdulrahim and Isabella Kwai

Ali Elshanti arrived in the flood-stricken city of Derna on Wednesday afternoon, part of an aid convoy he and his friends organized that left the city of Misrata in the west of Libya 15 hours earlier.

What he saw when he arrived looked like something out of a Hollywood disaster film, he said Thursday.

Efforts to respond to the devastation resulting from the collapse of two dams in eastern Libya and the floods that followed, killing thousands, were unorganized and uncoordinated, said Elshanti, 29, a sports broadcaster.

“The situation is still very bad — there is a mismanagement of the crisis,” he said, speaking from inside Derna, where he was helping the Libyan Red Crescent search for survivors — and bodies. “Unfortunately in Libya we suffer from a lack of crisis management. There is none. The operation on the ground is not organized.”

Over the weekend, torrential rains from Storm Daniel burst through two dams near Derna, on Libya’s northeastern coast, destroying much of the city and carrying entire neighborhoods into the sea. The floods damaged many roads and bridges, impeding access to the most stricken areas, with rescue efforts also complicated by the fact that Libya is ruled by rival governments.

Elshanti and others have been critical of the official response to the crisis.

Libyan authorities announced a joint operation room to oversee the response late Wednesday — three days after the dams broke and sent death and destruction through the streets of Derna and other coastal towns. The interior minister of the government in eastern Libya, Essam Abu Zeriba, set out the plan, saying the joint operations room would work in cooperation with the security forces.

The timing was an indication of how the disaster response was hampered in its early days.

“The needs are so huge — it’s very chaotic,” said Salaheddin Aboulgasem, a spokesperson for Islamic Relief, an aid group, who is coordinating volunteers on the ground.

“There is so much to do and so little time to do it,” said Aboulgasem, who is based in Birmingham, England. He added that the first trucks from the organization had arrived in Derna on Wednesday with blankets, food, hygiene kits and mattresses.

But telecommunications were still patchy, he said, and there were small windows to get supplies in.

“We need to understand and appreciate that this is an area that doesn’t have much infrastructure and functioning civil society,” he said.

A call for accountability came late Wednesday, when a top Libyan official demanded an investigation into the collapse of the two dams and the floods that followed.

“We asked the attorney general to open a comprehensive investigation into the events of the disaster,” Mohamed al-Menfi, the head of Libya’s Presidential Council, said in a social media post. He added that “everyone who made a mistake or neglected either in abstaining or taking actions that resulted in the collapse of the dams in the city of Derna” would be held accountable.

The call by al-Menfi’s council, based in the west of Libya, came as the Libyan National Army, the main authority in the divided country’s east, had closed entrances into Derna, allowing in only rescue crews and aid convoys. Libya is split between the internationally recognized government in the west based in Tripoli, the capital, and the separately administered region in the east, including Derna.

Aid convoys of food, medicine, clothes and blankets organized by charities, citizens, businesspeople and clubs continued to stream into the city and other parts of northeastern Libya where the displaced were seeking shelter.

Military vehicles were parked along streets throughout Derna. The previous day the army had urged surviving residents to leave the city, though aid workers have said many have chosen to stay and search for loved ones.

The investigations should “extend to everyone who obstructed international relief efforts or their arrival in the stricken cities,” al-Menfi said.

It was unclear how an investigation would be conducted and how much accountability Libyans could hope to see in a country where infrastructure has been allowed to degrade as rival authorities have focused on jockeying for power for more than a decade.

In a late-night news conference, Abu Zeriba, the eastern interior minister, announced that the number of documented dead was more than 2,700 and that more than 2,500 people were reported missing.

Libyan authorities have previously said the death toll from the flood could be more than 5,000 and that more than 10,000 people remained missing.

The discrepancy between the official numbers and the projected death toll underlined the chaos and disorganization of a catastrophic natural disaster in a country divided by rival governments. Libya has suffered more than a decade of conflict, power struggles and dysfunction in the wake of the Arab Spring revolution that deposed the country’s longtime dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.

On Wednesday night, the mayor of Derna, Abdel-Moneim al-Ghaithi, told Al-Arabiya television that the death toll could reach 20,000, based on the number of districts wiped out.

Libya was poorly prepared for Storm Daniel, which displayed its destructive power last week in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, killing more than a dozen people, before sweeping across the Mediterranean Sea, pummeling its coastline and destroying poorly maintained infrastructure.

A U.N. official also said Thursday that the scale of the crisis was partly the result of the lack of a functional meteorological authority in Libya.

Libya’s government had issued some early warnings before the storm, but residents said the advice was contradictory in some places.

The Libyan government announced a state of emergency in the eastern regions, warning of possible floods, and declared Sunday and Monday as emergency holidays for all public and educational institutions as well as the private sector.

But residents said there were mixed directives. Some said there were calls to evacuate, which no one heeded. Others said they were directed to stay inside their homes.

Mohammed Jadallah, a resident of Derna who fled the city with his family Sunday, said he had heard from friends that there were evacuation orders for some neighborhoods overlooking the sea in preparation for the storm.

By Sunday evening, he said, the rain and winds had intensified in the city. He said he woke up his three children to leave his house in their car. “As we stepped outside, the rain became even heavier, and some neighbors hesitated about leaving. I shouted loudly, urging them to leave, saying that if the road flooded, they wouldn’t be able to get out.”

He tried to drive, but his car barely navigated the waterlogged streets before army units found him and asked him to leave the city.

“I was afraid for my family and, at the same time, worried about my relatives and neighbors,” he said. “There wasn’t enough time to check on everyone.”

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