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Libya flood: investigation opened as hopes of finding survivors fade

Aid groups have warned of the growing risk posed by the spread of disease that could compound the humanitarian crisis in Libya, as hopes of finding more survivors fade days after deadly flooding.

Sunday’s flood submerged the port city of Derna, washing thousands of people and homes out to sea after two upstream dams burst under the pressure of torrential rains triggered by the hurricane-strength storm.

Conflicting death tolls have been reported, but official projections of the overall toll have surpassed 11,000.

Aid organisations such as Islamic Relief and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have warned that the coming period could see the spread of disease as well as grave difficulties in delivering aid to those most in need.

Islamic Relief warned of a “second humanitarian crisis” after the flood, pointing to the “growing risk of water-borne diseases and shortages of food, shelter and medicine”.

“Thousands of people don’t have anywhere to sleep and don’t have food,” said Salah Aboulgasem, the organisation’s deputy director of partner development.

“In conditions like this, diseases can quickly spread as water systems are contaminated. The city smells like death. Almost everyone has lost someone they know.”

MSF, meanwhile, said it was deploying teams to the east to assess water and sanitation.

“With this type of event we can really worry about water-related disease,” said Manoelle Carton, MSF’s medical coordinator in Derna, who described efforts to coordinate aid as “chaotic”.

Libyan authorities have largely sealed off Derna from civilians in an effort to give space to the emergency aid workers and amid concern of contamination of standing water.

Only search and rescue teams would be allowed to enter parts of the town most affected by the flooding, said Salem Al-Ferjani, director general of the ambulance and emergency service in eastern Libya. Many citizens have already left the town voluntarily.

But the Red Cross and the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that contrary to widespread belief, the bodies of victims of natural disasters rarely pose a health threat. The organisations issued a joint statement on Friday urging Libyans to stop burying the dead in mass graves.

“Some may move quickly to bury bodies, such as in mass graves, in part in an attempt to manage this distress, and sometimes because of the fear that these bodies pose a health threat,” the statement said.

“This approach can be detrimental to the population. Though local authorities and communities can be under immense pressure to bury the dead quickly, the consequences of mismanagement of the dead include long-lasting mental distress for family members as well as social and legal problems”.

An AFP journalist in Derna said central neighbourhoods on either side of the river, which normally dries up at this time of year, looked as if a steam roller had passed through, uprooting trees and buildings and hurling vehicles on to the port’s breakwaters.

Stephanie Williams, a US diplomat and former UN envoy to Libya, urged global mobilisation to coordinate aid efforts in the wake of the flood. She warned of the “predilection of Libya’s predatory ruling class to use the pretext of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national ownership’ to steer such a process on their own and in a self-interested manner”.

In a Friday night news conference, Ahmed al-Mesmari, the spokesperson for east-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar, pointed to “enormous needs for reconstruction”.

The UN launched an appeal for more than $71m to assist hundreds of thousands in need and warned the “extent of the problem” remains unclear.

“We don’t know the extent of the problem,” UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said on Friday in Geneva as he called for coordination between Libya’s two rival administrations – the UN-backed, internationally recognised government in Tripoli and one based in the disaster-hit east.

Teams from the Libyan Red Crescent are “still searching for possible survivors and clearing bodies from the rubble in the most damaged areas” of Derna, its spokesperson Tawfik Shoukri said.

Other teams were trying to deliver much-needed aid to families in the eastern part of the city, which had been spared the worst of the flooding but was cut off by road, he added.

Shoukri pointed to the “very high” level of destruction in the city, but declined to give figures for the number of victims.

While most fear the death toll will be much higher, Tamer Ramadan of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said there was still hope of finding survivors, but also declined to give a figure.

The International Organisation for Migration said “over 38,640” people had been left homeless in eastern Libya, 30,000 of them in Derna alone.

Patrick Wintour contributed to this report

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