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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Aid trickles into Libya, but flood damage hampers relief efforts

Derna, the northeastern Libyan city that was the most affected by recent floods, on Wednesday. With roads and bridges damaged or cut off, access is a major hurdle to bringing help.

By Raja Abdulrahim and Aaron Boxerman

Aid was trickling into eastern Libya on Wednesday, where more than 5,000 people have died in recent days after catastrophic flooding. But with roads and bridges damaged or cut off, access to the hardest-hit city of Derna, on the Mediterranean coast, remained a major hurdle to bringing in help, according to international aid groups.

Thousands of people are believed to be missing, meaning the death toll was likely to rise further in the hours and days ahead, and at least 20,000 people have been displaced, according to aid groups.

Libya, a North African nation divided by years of civil war and deep political and territorial divisions, was ill-prepared for Storm Daniel, which swept across the Mediterranean Sea, battering its coastline and quickly destroying poorly maintained infrastructure. The country is run by two rival governments — one in the western half and another in the east — further complicating the rescue and aid efforts.

The flooding hit after heavy rains burst through two dams south of Derna, unleashing torrents of water through the city of nearly 100,000 people. Much of Derna was destroyed as entire neighborhoods, including homes, schools and mosques, were swept away in the flooding that began over the weekend. The Derna City Council has called for the opening of a maritime passageway to the city and for urgent international intervention.

Rescue teams and some aid deliveries began reaching Derna on Monday via the damaged roads that made passage more difficult and time-consuming, said Libya’s Red Crescent spokesperson Tawfiq al-Shukri. Aid is also being sent to the airport in Al Bayda, one of the affected towns in the stricken area that extends some 100 kilometers (about 62 miles), he said.

International aid — including rescue teams sent by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates — sent to the city of Benghazi more than 180 miles away from Derna have already been dispatched to the disaster zone, he said.

“When the aid arrives, it is immediately sent to the affected areas,” he said. “The needs are greater than our abilities and the aid that has come.”

Libya is especially vulnerable to climate change. Warming causes the waters of the Mediterranean to expand and its sea levels to rise, eroding shorelines and contributing to flooding, according to the United Nations. The country’s low-lying coastal areas, where much of Libya’s population lives, is at particular risk.

Ruba Hatem Yassine, a 24-year-old resident of Derna, recounted the moments Monday when the flood tore through her city’s streets. She, her elderly relatives and her pregnant sister clambered from rooftop to rooftop along their narrow street. Eventually, they sought shelter in a small storage unit on a rooftop and watched the water overwhelm the city.

From there, she could hear the screams of people trapped in their homes by rising water and others screaming from under the rubble, “Save us, save us,” she said Wednesday morning, speaking by phone from a friend’s home in the nearby town of Marj.

After the flood subsided somewhat, some other survivors helped the family of nine get down to safety. They walked barefoot through knee-deep water until they reached a safer area, she said, leaving behind everything, including clothes, money and passports.

“We walked out barefoot and saw our friends and neighbors dying around us. And we couldn’t do anything,” Yassine said.

The Libyan Red Crescent, a nonprofit aid group whose volunteers have helped evacuate residents and which is leading the search and rescue efforts, reported early Wednesday on its Facebook page that for a third day, its volunteers are searching for some of the thousands still missing, combing fields, trails and riverbanks.

“No missing persons have been found at this moment,” the group said.

The group published a document on its Facebook page listing the survivors from Derna. By Wednesday morning, it continued to grow to more than 300 names.

“The support is trickling in. We just need more of it,” said Dax Roque, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director for Libya. “The response in Libya for so long has been underfunded. There’s an urgent need for international help.”

He welcomed the U.N.’s announcement that it was allocating $10 million from its emergency response fund to help those affected by the floods.

By Wednesday, it was still unclear how much of the aid — both from inside Libya and internationally — had arrived in the most-affected areas.

Faris al-Tayeh, who is heading a network of volunteer relief workers, managed to reach Derna on Monday afternoon despite treacherous, torn-up roads packed with people fleeing, he said. The entire city had been split in two by the flooding, he said.

“To get from one side to the other, you need to travel around for over a hundred kilometers,” he said.

Al-Tayeh is now organizing an aid convoy to Derna.

“We could never have imagined what we saw: corpses in the ocean, whole families wiped out, fathers and sons and brothers stacked on top of each other,” said al-Tayeh. “Whole buildings dragged into the water with their residents still inside.”

For years, Libya has been divided between an internationally recognized government in the western half based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east, including Derna — where the main authority is the Libyan National Army.

Shipments of supplies, including body bags and medical equipment, left early Tuesday morning from Tripoli for the city of Benghazi, ​​the main city on the eastern side, the Tripoli government said. A medical convoy of doctors, nurses and other rescue volunteers had already arrived in Benghazi that morning.

What was most needed, the Tripoli government said, was rescue workers, inspectors and others who specialize in handling floods.

“The infrastructure has been destroyed, which makes it very difficult for emergency medical workers to reach these areas,” said Basheer Omar, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya. He added that authorities had to disable the electrical grid for fear of people being electrocuted in the floods.

His organization has been sending supplies and technical support to the Libyan Red Crescent, including body bags and personal protective gear.

“These areas are totally disconnected. There are no phones, no food, no electricity, so the situation is really dire in these areas,” he said. “It’s beyond the capacity of the authorities in Libya, so Libya needs the support of the international community.”

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