Devastating floods have killed 700 people and 10,000 are reported missing in the Libyan eastern city of Derna, officials said on Tuesday, as rescue teams struggled to retrieve many more bodies from the raging deluge.
Authorities had previously estimated that more than 2,000 people may have been killed in Derna alone. Mediterranean Storm Daniel struck several cities in eastern Libya on Sunday night, causing flash flooding, but the worst damage was in Derna, where heavy rains and flooding broke dams and swept away entire neighborhoods, officials said.
Tamer Ramadan, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ envoy to Libya, said 10,000 people were missing after the unprecedented flooding. Speaking to reporters at a UN briefing in Geneva via videoconference from Tunisia, he said the death toll was “very large” and was expected to reach the thousands in the coming days.
On the other side of North Africa, speaking about the consequences of Friday’s devastating earthquake in Morocco, Ramadan said the situation in Libya was “as devastating as the situation in Morocco.”
Osama Hamad, the government’s prime minister in eastern Libya, said many of the missing were believed to have been swept away after two upstream dams broke. He said the destruction in Derna was beyond his country’s capabilities.
After more than a decade of chaos, Libya is divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and one in the west, each backed by separate militias and foreign governments. The conflict has left the oil-rich North African country in ruins and with inadequate infrastructure.
The Libyan Red Crescent said early Tuesday that its teams had counted more than 300 dead in Derna, which authorities have declared a disaster zone.
More bodies still lie under the debris in neighborhoods across the city, or have been washed out to sea, according to eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljalil.
Derna residents posted videos online showing major destruction. Entire residential blocks were wiped out along the banks of Wadi Derna, a river that flows from the mountains through the center of the city. Multi-storey apartment buildings that once stood well away from the river partially collapsed into the mud.
According to Libya’s state news agency, Abduljalil said the city was inaccessible and bodies were scattered everywhere. He said the exact number of deaths in Derna was not known as of Monday night, but was expected to exceed 2,000 after search teams combed through the debris.
He was quoted as saying, “The situation was more significant and worse than we expected. … An international intervention is required.”
Emergency responders, including soldiers, government workers, volunteers and residents, were digging through the debris to pull out the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water. Excavators and other equipment have not yet reached Derna.
Many residents described a scene of chaos as the center flooded. Ahmed Abdullah, a Derna resident, said he heard loud explosions at night and realized that the dams outside the city had collapsed, creating a wall of water that “wiped out everything in its path.”
Workers said they buried more than 200 bodies at a cemetery on Monday. Footage from overnight showed dozens more bodies covered with blankets or sheets on the ground in a hospital courtyard in Derna.
The storm affected other areas of eastern Libya, including the city of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported killed. The Medical Center in Bayda, the main hospital, was flooded and patients had to be evacuated, according to footage shared by the center on Facebook.
According to the government, other towns that suffered damage included Susa, Marj and Shahat. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in the city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.
Northeastern Libya is one of the most fertile and green regions of the country. According to the World Bank, the Jabal al-Akhdar region – where Bayda, Marj and Shahat are located – has one of the highest average annual rainfall areas in the country.
Officials from eastern and western Libya rushed to help Derna residents. The health ministry in Tripoli said a plane carrying 14 tons of medical equipment, medicines and body bags along with health care workers departed for Benghazi on Tuesday. Other agencies across the country said they would send humanitarian aid to Derna.
Foreign governments also sent messages of support to Libya.
Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were among those that said they would send humanitarian aid and teams to help with search and rescue efforts. The US Embassy said on Monday it was contacting the United Nations and Libyan officials on how to deliver aid to the hardest-hit areas.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called on his military commanders on Tuesday to arrange immediate aid to Libya. He said in televised comments that the army would deploy equipment and personnel in coordination with eastern Libyan forces to help affected communities.
Derna, known for its whitewashed houses and palm groves, is about 560 miles east of the capital of Tripoli. It is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, who is allied with the eastern Libyan government. The rival government based in Tripoli in western Libya is allied with other armed groups.
Much of Derna was built by Italy when Libya was under Italian occupation in the first half of the 20th century. The city was a hotbed of extremist groups during years of chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.