Libya struggles to deal with thousands of corpses in shattered Derna

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TAKNIS, Libya — Up to 20,000 people are feared dead in Libya’s devastated east, with search and relief efforts ongoing Thursday, four days after the coast was pounded by Storm Daniel, submerging neighborhoods and pulling countless residents out to sea.

Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, mayor of Derna, the city hardest hit by the storm, told the Saudi channel al-Arabiya that he believed the number of dead was between 18,000 and 20,000, “based on the number of neighborhoods destroyed.”

Efforts are focused now on accounting for the thousands considered missing.

See why Libya’s floods were so deadly in maps and videos

Husam Abdel Gawi, 31, a civil servant in Derna who was doing volunteer rescue work, said in a phone interview that teams of people were combing the city for the dead, fearing that the bodies could pose environmental and health risks.

“The focus of efforts is now on burials, so we don’t subject the city to a new disaster,” he said.

But the storm’s victims were becoming harder to find. “The bodies are in the seawater, and under rubble. So we need specialized rescue teams.” Abdel Gawi said there were few such teams — only two from overseas, including from Turkey, had made it to Derna so far.

He said men were carrying the bodies to trucks to be transported to areas outside Derna, where trenches were dug and the corpses were — regrettably, he said — buried in mass graves.

Othman Abdul Jalil, minister of health for Libya’s eastern government, said 3,000 bodies had been interred so far in sites outside of Derna. Another 2,000 have yet to be buried, he told al-Arabiya, adding that teams of divers are combing the sea for more victims.

Kamal al-Siyawi, the head of a commission responsible for locating the missing, beseeched citizens to “mark the locations of the cemeteries of the unidentified,” in remarks to a Libyan channel, to help the government record the deaths and take the necessary samples required for identification.

Addressing the international community, Osama Hammad, prime minister of the eastern-based government in this divided nation, said the area is in dire need of specialists to retrieve the dead. “The area needs to be closed off completely, confined completely,” he told Libyan TV channel al-Masar in the early hours of Thursday.

International health and relief organizations have said that dead bodies left behind after natural disasters do not cause epidemics. But they can, in some cases, cause environmental hazards, including by contaminating drinking water.

“There are conflicts in the number … of deaths, but what matters is that the deaths number in the thousands,” said Ahmed Zouiten, the Libya representative from the World Health Organization. Speaking to TV channel al-Hurra late Wednesday night, he said the WHO’s count of corpses recovered so far was 3,460.

The three of the region’s hospitals are completely out of service; several of the remaining ones are only partially operational.

“This disaster is of mythic proportions,” he said. “A disaster by all measures. Now, the retrieval of the corpses is important, as is burying the corpses before they disintegrate … and cause some environmental issues.”

Search teams combed streets, wrecked buildings and the ocean for bodies on Sept. 13 in Derna, after eastern Libya was devastated by deadly flooding. (Video: AP)

There are also “tremendous” numbers of sick people who have been displaced and are in immediate need of medical attention, he added.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it had distributed 6,000 body bags to help authorities extend dignified treatment to the dead. Yann Fridez, head of the ICRC’s Libya delegation, said in a statement that a wave approximately 23 feet (seven meters) high “wiped out buildings and washed infrastructure into the sea.”

Roads have been seriously degraded, the statement added, hindering humanitarian efforts to reach the flood-hit east. Unexploded ordnance and abandoned munition stores in Derna also pose a threat to those in the city.

Bodies ‘everywhere’ in Libyan city after floods; thousands still missing

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said the scale of the tragedy would have been avoidable if proper early-warning services had been in place. No evacuation orders were issued before the storm struck the area Sunday night, even though it had already left a trail of destruction in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Had there been normal public services available in Libya, “they could have issued a warning and also the emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people, and we could have avoided most of the human casualties,” Petteri Taalas, the head of the WMO, told reporters.

How a decade of conflict and division put Libya in peril of disaster

Derna’s disaster came when floodwaters poured down the hills surrounding the city, burst through two dams and washed away about a quarter of the inhabited area. Days later, much of it is still underwater.

Abdel Gawi, one of the volunteer rescue workers, said on the day of the flood, water burst into his building from every crevice. “Cars and dead bodies barged into the house. We opened the doors and the water filled the floor, so we moved to the second floor.” The water followed.

Outside, “the corpses were in the hundreds. You open your door and see hundreds; they floated into the buildings from doors, from windows.”

The scale of the disaster was apparent some 85 miles outside Derna on Thursday, where the landscape was still marked by stagnant floodwaters clogging fields. Cars caked in red silt were leaving the flood zone as dozens of aid trucks and excavators from across the country headed the opposite direction into the affected region.

For years, the country has been divided between two warring rivals: a government in the east and one in the west. After the flood, the United Nations-backed western government said it had dispatched convoys of aid to the east. It instructed a cruise ship to moor at Derna port for at least 60 days to provide shelter for rescue teams working in the area.

Dadouch reported from Beirut and Fahim reported from Istanbul. Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

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