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After Libya Floods, a Chaotic Scramble for Rescuers

WorldAfter Libya Floods, a Chaotic Scramble for Rescuers

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 Misurata 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 on 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 Mr. Elshanti, a 29-year-old 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, as well as 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.

Even before the dams broke, residents of the worst-hit areas were getting conflicting signals from the authorities on whether they should evacuate, some said. On Thursday, a United Nations official said that the scale of the crisis was also in part the result of the lack of a functional meteorological authority in Libya.

“At the moment we have a crisis going in Libya with even more than 10,000 casualties,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a briefing to reporters in Geneva. “And one reason for that is the meteorological service in Libya hasn’t been functioning, thanks to the chaotic situation of the administration in Libya.”

While the Libyan meteorological service did issue early warnings about heavy rain and floods, it did not address the risk posed by “the aging dams,” the World Meteorological Organization said in a later statement on Thursday. The Libyan weather service’s abilities were limited, the U.N. agency said, by “major gaps in its observing systems,” as well as its information technology.

The toll of 10,000 cited by Mr. Taalas has also been used by some officials in Libya. Estimates have varied, with some much lower, but whatever the final tally, the country is devastated.

“The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Libya is unprecedented,” Ahmed al-Mandhari, regional director in Eastern Mediterranean for the World Health Organization, said in a statement.

With many health facilities out of service and those that are still operational overwhelmed, Mr. al-Mandhari said, the W.H.O. was preparing an airlift with 28 tons of surgical and medical supplies to take off from Dubai in the next 48 hours.

The Libyan authorities on Wednesday announced a joint operation room to oversee the response — three days after the dams broke and sent death and destruction through the streets of Derna and other coastal towns. The plan was laid out by the interior minister of the government in eastern Libya, Essam Abu Zeriba.

“The needs are so huge — it’s very chaotic,” said Salaheddin Aboulgasem, a spokesman for Islamic Relief, an aid group.

The first trucks from the organization arrived in Derna on Wednesday with blankets, food, hygiene kits and mattresses, he said, but “there is so much to do and so little time to do it.”

Telecommunications were still patchy, Mr. Aboulgasem said, and there were limited opportunities 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.

Rescue efforts have been further complicated by the fact that Libya is ruled by rival governments, and late Wednesday, a top Libyan official demanded an investigation into both the collapse of the dams and the response to 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 the Libyan Presidential Council — which is based in the west — said in a social media post. He said 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” should be held accountable.

The call by the presidential council came as the Libyan National Army, the main authority in the east of the divided country, closed entrances into Derna, allowing in only rescue crews and aid convoys. Military vehicles were parked along streets throughout the city.

A day earlier, the army urged surviving residents to leave Derna, but aid workers say many have chosen to stay and search for loved ones. Convoys of food, medicine, clothes and blankets organized by charities, citizens, businessmen and clubs have streamed into the city and other parts of northeastern Libya.

It was unclear how an investigation like the one demanded by Mr. al-Menfi would be conducted and how much accountability Libyans can hope to see in a country where the infrastructure has been allowed to degrade as rival authorities jockey for power.

For more than a decade, Libya has suffered conflict and dysfunction in the wake of the Arab Spring revolution that deposed the country’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Now, it 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.

On Thursday, the health minister for the eastern government said the official, documented count had risen to 3,065 dead, with 4,227 formally reported missing. The Libyan authorities have previously said that the death toll could be more than 5,000 and that more than 10,000 people were missing.

On Wednesday night, the mayor of Derna, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, told Al Arabiya television that the death toll could reach 20,000, based on the number of districts wiped out. The Libyan Red Crescent says the number may be closer to 10,000 or 11,000.

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

Mr. Taalas, the World Meteorological Organization secretary general, said if the Libyan meteorological service had been able to issue adequate warnings, emergency management services would have been able to evacuate more people. “We could have avoided most of the human casualties,” he said.

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 on Sunday, said that 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,” Mr. Jadallah said. “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 was barely able to navigate the waterlogged streets. When army units found him, they asked him to leave the city.

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

Ibrahim Jarbou contributed reporting from Derna, Libya, Mohammed Abdusamee from Tripoli and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.


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