The devastating situation on the ground in Libya following catastrophic floods has generated some controversy over the total number of confirmed deaths.

Last Sunday, two dams in the mountains above Derna burst, sending 7-meter (23-foot) waves down the Wadi Derna River and through the city center, sweeping buildings, streets and people into the Mediterranean Sea.

Derna, with a population of 90,000, was largely cut off from the world before the floods.

Now the bridges, roads and what little infrastructure existed are gone, making it difficult for international relief organizations to get around and help verify the number of missing and dead.

Rescue teams carry a body as they walk through the mud between destroyed buildings after dam explosions in Derna, Libya (Photo by: Ahmed Al-Amami/Reuters)

Why is it difficult to confirm the death toll?

The country has been divided between rival administrations, each supporting rival armed militias, for nearly a decade. The internationally recognized National Unity Government is based in Tripoli in the west, while a parallel government controls the east, which includes the city of Derna.

The two governments agreed to band together to confront the catastrophic situation, but officials from both sides provided details of contradictory death tolls.

The political divide saw widespread neglect of infrastructure. Only two roads from the south remain usable via dangerous winding roads through the mountains.

As a result, authorities and relief organizations found it difficult to provide assistance. Emergency workers in Derna rely on the limited resources available to them to continue search operations and confirm the identity of the victims.

Satellite images show an area before and after the powerful storm and heavy rain that hit Derna (Image: Planet Labs PBC via Reuters)

How many are believed to have died?

The British Red Cross reported that more than 5,000 people had died while 10,000 were reported missing.

The spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior of the Government of National Accord, Lieutenant Tariq Al-Kharraz, said that 3,840 deaths have been recorded so far in Derna.

More than 5,300 deaths have been reported, said Hisham Abu Shekiwat, Minister of Civil Aviation in the opposition Eastern Administration that controls the coastal city, adding that the number is likely to rise.

Officials inside the city went further when they provided details about the stark reality of the number of deaths expected to be confirmed in the coming days. Abdel Moneim Al-Ghaithi, Mayor of Derna, said that deaths could reach between 18,000 and 20,000, depending on the extent of the damage.

He said: “We actually need specialized teams to recover bodies.”

“I fear that the city will be infected with the epidemic due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water.”

As of Thursday morning, health officials in Derna put the death toll at 5,500. Osama Ali, spokesman for the ambulance center in eastern Libya, said 9,000 people were still missing.

He added: “Some bodies may not be found, especially those that were washed out to sea.”

A World Health Organization official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and did so on condition of anonymity, said the deaths could reach 7,000 people.

Additional reports by agencies

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