More than 5,000 people were killed in Libya after torrential rains caused two dams to burst near the coastal city of Derna, destroying much of the city and carrying entire neighborhoods into the sea, local authorities said on Tuesday.
Libya, a North African nation splintered by a war, was ill-prepared for the storm, called Daniel, which swept across the Mediterranean Sea to batter its coastline. The country is administered by two rival governments, complicating rescue and aid efforts, and despite its vast oil resources, its infrastructure had been poorly maintained after more than a decade of political chaos.
In the city of Derna alone, at least 5,200 people died, said Tarek al-Kharraz, a spokesman for the interior ministry of the government that oversees eastern Libya, according to the Libyan television station al-Masar. But the floodwaters also swept through other eastern settlements, including Shahhat, Al-Bayda and Marj, and at least 20,000 people were displaced.
Thousands more were missing and the death toll is likely to rise in the coming days. The flooding left bodies scattered in the streets while buckling buildings, sinking vehicles and blocking roads, impeding access to the most stricken areas.
“We still cannot comprehend the magnitude of what has happened,” said Jawhar Ali, 28, a Derna native who lives in Turkey and spent two sleepless nights seeking news from his family back home, where communications were cut off by the disaster. “The shock we are experiencing is terrible.”
Analysts said the country’s woes — political division, economic instability, corruption, environmental degradation and dilapidated infrastructure — seemed to coalesce in one catastrophe when the dams south of the city collapsed. The flooding came days after an earthquake in Morocco, another North African nation, killed more than 2,900 people.
But to Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan policy research center, the two events felt profoundly different, given the unpredictable timing of the earth’s tremors compared with a storm like Daniel, which can be forecast hours or days ahead.
Even after the storm displayed its destructive power last week in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, killing more than a dozen people, Libyan authorities seemed to have no serious plan to monitor the dams, warn residents or evacuate them, Mr. El Gomati said.
“We say Mother Nature, but this is the act of man — it’s the incompetence of Libya’s political elites,” Mr. El Gomati said. “There’s no words you can find to describe the biblical level of suffering those people have to endure.”
The dams unleashed water that poured through Derna, a city of roughly 100,000 people, Ahmed al-Mismari, a spokesman for the Libyan National Army, the dominant political force in the area, said in a televised news conference on Monday.
“It’s the first time we’ve been exposed to this type of weather,” Mr. al-Mismari said, calling the scenario “completely unexpected.” Conditions were making it difficult to orchestrate rescue and aid operations, with all roads to the most affected areas either cut off or nearly cut off, he said.
Citizens who escaped Derna left the city “as if they were born today, with nothing,” he said.
The flooding recalled the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the storm struck Louisiana and became a calamity after levees in New Orleans ruptured, inundating vast parts of the city.
It also underscored how climate change can combine with political conflicts and economic failure to magnify the scale of disasters.
Libya is divided between the internationally recognized government based in Tripoli, the capital, and a separately administered region in the east, including Derna — where the main power broker is the Libyan National Army and its commander, Khalifa Hifter, a longtime militia leader.
“Libya for the past 10 years has gone through one war to another, one political crisis to another,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Essentially this has meant that, for the past 10 years, there hasn’t really been much investment in the country’s infrastructure.”
The country is also especially vulnerable to climate change and severe storms. Warming causes the waters of the Mediterranean to expand and its sea levels to rise, eroding shorelines and contributing to flooding, with low-lying coastal areas of Libya at particular risk, according to the United Nations.
On average, hurricane-like storms form once or twice a year over the Mediterranean Sea, usually in autumn, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases warm the planet, rainstorms of many kinds generally deliver heavier loads of precipitation for a simple reason: Hotter air can hold more moisture.
Most of Libya’s population lives in coastal areas, and intense storm surges could wreak widespread infrastructural damage, warned a 2021 brief from the Climate Security Expert Network, a group advising on climate-related security risks.
On Tuesday, a local official speaking to al-Masar said that another dam in the eastern region was filled with water and on the brink of collapse. The Jaza dam — located between Derna and the city of Benghazi — needed maintenance to prevent another disaster, the mayor of the municipality of Tocra, Mahmoud Al Sharaima, said.
“The recent Daniel storm has brought to light the fact that Libya is ill-prepared to handle the effects of climate change and extreme weather events,” said Malak Altaeb, a Libyan consultant and researcher on environmental policy in the Middle East and North Africa. “The need for urgent action to address these pressing issues can no longer be overstated.”
Derna, which is on Libya’s northeastern coast, was built on the ruins of an ancient Greek colony. Mr. El Gomati, the policy research center director, described it as a beautiful seaside town, once known for its culture, poetry and theater.
“Local residents used to claim that it was a piece of heaven that dropped from the sky,” he said.
Ms. Gazzini, the analyst, recalled visiting a few months ago and crossing the valley that flooded this weekend. “I never saw any water, and I was always thinking, Why is there such a big valley in this empty space here?” she said.
But the dry riverbeds that dot the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa can flood rapidly when it rains heavily, as the parched earth struggles to absorb the downpour.
“What happened in Derna was beyond imaginable — you would never think of such torrential rain in a desert country that hasn’t seen this type of flooding,” Ms. Gazzini said.
Political instability can also worsen environmental degradation through deforestation and illegal construction, said Ms. Altaeb, the consultant, reducing the ability of the land to absorb rain, increasing surface runoff and heightening the risk of flooding.
Libya endured 42 years of autocratic rule under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi before he was overthrown in a revolt in 2011, during the Arab Spring.
Over the next decade, the country was fractured by a civil war that drew in multiple foreign players, including the United States. At one point, Turkey backed a provisional government in Tripoli while Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt supported Mr. Hifter, a former Libyan general.
Today, the country is governed by the western administration based in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, and an eastern-based authority led by Osama Hamad. Dozens of armed groups remain influential, a point reinforced by deadly clashes last month in Tripoli. Despite possessing the largest oil and gas reserves on the African continent, the country was ill-equipped to deal with disaster.
The different authorities in Libya appeared to be working together to some extent to coordinate the search and rescue efforts, as medical teams began converging on the region to treat survivors and search for the missing. They included rescue workers sent by the government in Tripoli as well as others sent by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, who arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday. Several aid groups also said they were scaling up their services in the country.
President Biden, in a statement on Tuesday, said that the United States was “sending emergency funds to relief organizations and coordinating with the Libyan authorities and the U.N. to provide additional support.” President Emmanuel Macron of France also announced the country would send financial support and other aid for organizations working on the ground.
However, it was unclear how much aid had reached the most-affected areas; Benghazi is more than 180 miles from Derna by car, and many of the area’s roads had been cut off by the flooding, the Derna City Council said on Monday. It called for the opening of a maritime passageway to Derna and for urgent international intervention.
As Libyans struggled to reach their loved ones through communication blackouts, many of them turned to Facebook, where groups were filled with inquiries from relatives of people in Derna.
In Turkey, as he waited anxiously with a friend from Derna, Mr. Ali was elated to finally hear on Tuesday that his family was safe — but his friend, whose sobbing punctuated Mr. Ali’s voice messages to a Times reporter, had lost seven relatives when their home was swept away, including his wife, his mother, his father and his infant child.
“The city is experiencing a tragic situation, a catastrophe unlike anything we have ever seen,” Mr. Ali said, pleading for international assistance. “The residents of Derna are searching for the bodies of their loved ones by digging with their hands and simple agricultural tools.”
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo, and Raymond Zhong from New York.