Survivors Say 60 Members of a Single Family Lost in Derna, Libya Floods

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FES, Morocco—The city of Derna on Libya’s eastern coast was virtually wiped off the map by a record-breaking flood this week.

Oais Azouz, a Libyan student in Turkey, had been following the forecasts about a dangerous storm but was stunned by the impact on his hometown.

“I was on a call with my uncle who told me, ‘There’s no more Derna,’” said Azouz.

As Storm Daniel swept Libya’s east on Monday, two dams near Derna swelled with water and collapsed. The recorded death toll in the city has since reached 6,000, amid expectations that the actual number is closer to 20,000 dead. Another 30,000 have been displaced.

“I’ve lost almost 60 close relatives,” Azouz told The Daily Beast. “We still can’t reach everyone. My aunt was missing for almost a day. My cousin saved his father’s life and was found dead.”

Other members of his extended family lost to the flood include a husband and wife and their seven children as well as a pair of grandparents and their grandchildren.

The storm severed much of the city’s connection to the electrical grid and the Internet, undermining efforts to understand and address one of the worst natural disasters in North Africa’s history. Yet morbid images have trickled out.

Photo showing floods in Derna, Libya

A view shows the damaged areas, in the aftermath of the floods in Derna, Libya, September 13, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video.

Marwan Alfaituria/via Reuters

Azouz heard stories of Derna’s residents fishing corpses from the Mediterranean Sea, leading to fears that the handling of bodies with bare hands could make the city “a hot spot for diseases, epidemics.” An uncle told him that Storm Daniel—in addition to leveling Derna—had split it in two.

“There’s a western side and an eastern side now,” said Azouz, “and moving between them requires a boat.”

The people of Derna are no strangers to suffering. The city changed hands often during Libya’s on-again-off-again civil war, at one point becoming a battleground for militias tied to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Derna has been under the control of the Libyan-American warlord and one-time CIA asset Khalifa Haftar since 2018, when his militia, the Libyan National Army, captured the city in a campaign marred by accusations of war crimes.

The authorities’ response to the floods, in part a result of the failure to maintain Derna’s dams, has brought renewed criticism.

“Our government is corrupt and won’t help with the things needed,” said Azouz. “The city is dying.”

“I will describe it to you in one word: Horror.”

But the devastation extends far beyond Derna.

“In Bayda the streets are destroyed,” Lamis Fouad Naseeb, whose inland city lies 60 miles west of Derna, told The Daily Beast. “Families are homeless—cars everywhere in the streets. We need professional rescue teams because there are still people locked in their houses by the water.”

Photo showing floods in Bayda, Libya

A view shows damaged cars after a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit, in Al Bayda, Libya, September 11, 2023, in this screengrab obtained from social media video.

Instagram/@EX5TWD via Reuters

Naseeb said that Storm Daniel had destroyed the walls around Bayda’s main hospital and flooded its electrical room, putting it out of service even as refugees from Derna have been streaming in.

“Recently the people of the city, from scouts to volunteers to students, have been organizing campaigns for the affected families in schools,” Naseeb told The Daily Beast. “Libyan Red Crescent volunteers started rescuing families and injured people, and also the Libyan National Army. One of the Libyan Red Crescent volunteers went missing down the street and they couldn’t find him until now.”

Storm Daniel’s toll on Libya’s buckling infrastructure has complicated the provision of additional assistance, with roads to Susa, a coastal city between Bayda and Derna, rendered all but impassable by the floods.

“It’s been two days for the people of Susa without food and water,” said Naseeb. “One of my friends texted me saying that the sea started bringing back the floating bodies in the city.”


The biggest potential obstacle to humanitarian aid, though, is political.

Libya’s U.N.-recognized government, based in the capital of Tripoli hundreds of miles from the affected cities, has limited sway outside the west of the country and depends on a constellation of rival militias to enforce its authority.

The dominant powerbroker in the storm-battered east is Libyan National Army commander Haftar, whose brutal campaign to drive out the regime in Tripoli ended in failure three years ago.

Photo showing floods in Derna, Libya

Marwan Alfaituria/via Reuters

But the national horror at the scale of the tragedy has brought at least a momentary respite from the decade of factionalism that followed Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 ouster.

Authorities in Tripoli are sending healthcare workers, medical supplies, and $412 million to assist with disaster management in the east. Turkey, one of the Tripoli government’s most important backers, likewise joined Haftar patrons Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in flying humanitarian aid to Benghazi, the largest city in the east and the second largest in Libya.

“All the Libyan cities, with their political differences, took a serious stand together with Derna and put their differences aside,” said Fatima Alzahra Aldghily, a resident of the eastern city of Ajdabiya.

Aldghily attributed Ajdabiya’s ability to withstand Storm Daniel to the work of the Libyan Red Crescent and local police.

“Everything was prepared in my city in the event of a flood,” she told The Daily Beast. “The equipment included ambulances, boats, and some relief, but thank God nothing serious happened and the storm passed over us safely, unlike Derna.”

Aldghily said that Benghazi too had taken successful steps to mitigate the effects of flooding, yet that city may soon have more in common with Derna than Ajdabiya.

Benghazi residents told The Daily Beast of growing fears that the Wadi Qattara Dam, located east of the city, could burst like its counterparts in Derna.

“So far, the dams have held, but the patrols have evacuated the areas near the Qattara valley,” said Saleem Alomami, a Benghazi University student who runs an Instagram fan page dedicated to the city.

Derna-scale floods in Benghazi, with a population estimated to be between 715,000 and 812,000, could lead to untold numbers of deaths.

“The situation in Benghazi is very critical, especially in the areas near the dam,” said Yeccu Alawati, a Benghazi human rights activist and outspoken advocate of Libya’s Amazigh indigenous people. “The Wadi Qattara Dam is on the verge of overflowing and there is a high risk of collapse. If that happens, it would be a disaster worse than what occurred in Derna.”

As Storm Daniel’s first wave of refugees take up residence in Benghazi schools, its people have drawn on a deep well of sympathy. Yet another feeling permeates the air of the city as Benghazi residents see a snapshot of what—they fear—could be their own future.

“I will describe it to you in one word,” said Alawati, “horror.”

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