UAE mission races against time as NGO warns flooded Libya is 'days away from epidemic'

Fears grow that decaying bodies under rubble or washed out to sea will cause disease outbreak

Derna, Libya
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The task to find survivors in Libya's Derna a week after Storm Daniel caused havoc in the port city has now turned to retrieving bodies.

“Our mission today is not to look for survivors. They’re all at the mercy of Allah now," a commander of the Dubai Police naval search-and-rescue personnel told his team of divers from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"Your mission is to help our Libyan brothers to recover the bodies that were pulled into the sea last week, when the sea pushed into the city and then washed ashore. Many of the bodies you’ll see will also be stuck inside cars that were pulled into the sea."

Fears are growing of a cholera outbreak in Derna and the pressing challenge is to recover bodies of the thousands who died and are being washed up from the sea or are decaying under rubble.

“We’re now just days away from an epidemic,” a medical source from the Libyan Red Crescent told The National.

"There’s no doubt that cholera will be the biggest challenge in the weeks to come. International efforts will be focused on getting the right medicine flown into Derna."

The lack of awareness of the dangers posed by potential waterborne diseases is evident on the ground. One resident who was helping with rescue operations at a building that collapsed on the edge of the Derna valley approached the shore and started washing his hands and face in the water.

A Libyan Red Crescent worker tried to stop him but it was too late.

Derna, Libya

“The best we could do for him is to sanitise his hands with alcohol and hope for the best. But he probably has caught something and will likely infect people he comes close to,” the NGO worker said.

Along the coastline of the port city, the Emirati diving missions are joined by others from France, Italy and Russia, the rocky shoreline near the main section of the bridge of the Derna valley making the task more difficult.

Many Derna residents were in their cars on that bridge when it collapsed as they attempted to evacuate during the storm last Monday.

The UAE commander said it was vital "not to try to recover bodies from cars".

"Anything that makes your mission difficult and even more dangerous should be avoided at all costs," he added.

"Risk of disease is very high so please be careful about your own safety.

"I’ve never seen anything like this before. We’re thankfully trained for missions like this but we have to be practical and make sure we’re as safe as possible. I don’t think this type of disaster has ever befallen on our region."

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated at least 11,300 people have died so far in the floods and more than 10,000 were missing in Derna.

"On orders of our wise leadership in the UAE, we’re here to help our brothers wherever they need it in the region,” one of the divers told The National on Monday.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 3:40 AM