CAIRO — Rescue teams in eastern Libya have retrieved hundreds of bodies from the rubble in a coastal city that has been inundated by devastating floods, a humanitarian agency said Tuesday. Authorities estimated that as many as 2,000 people are believed dead in the city of Derna.
Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused devastating floods in many towns in eastern Libya. But the worst destruction was in Derna, where heavy rainfall and floods broke dams and washed away entire neighborhoods, authorities said.
Ossama Hamad, prime minister of the east Libya government, said that several thousand people were missing in the city and many were believed to have been carried away after two upstream dams burst.
After more than a decade of chaos, Libya remains divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and one in the west, each backed by militias and foreign governments. The conflict has left the oil rich country with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure.
The Libyan Red Crescent said early Tuesday that its teams counted more than 300 people dead in Derna. The government in east Libya declared the city a disaster zone.
More bodies were still under the rubble in the city’s neighborhoods, or washed away to the sea, according to east Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.
Derna residents posted videos online showing major devastation. Entire residential blocks were erased along Wadi Derna, a river that runs down from the mountains through the city center. Multi-story apartment buildings that once stood well back from the river were partially collapsed into mud.
Abduljaleel said the city was inaccessible and bodies were scattered across it, according to Libya’s state-run news agency. He said there wasn’t an exact death toll as of Monday night in Derna, but the tally is expected to exceed 2,000 as teams combed through the rubble.
“The situation was more significant and worse than we expected. … An international intervention is needed,” he was quoted as saying.
Emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents were digging through the rubble to recover the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water. Excavators and other equipment have yet to arrive in the city.
Residents described scenes of chaos when floods hit the center. They heard loud explosions at night and realized that dams outside the city collapsed, sending a wall of water that “erased everything in its way,” said Ahmed Abdalla, a Derna resident.
Workers said they buried more than 200 bodies in one cemetery on Monday. Footage overnight showed dozens of more bodies lying on the ground in a hospital yard in Derna.
The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead. The Medical Center of Bayda, the main hospital, was flooded and patients had to be evacuated, according to footage shared by the center on Facebook.
Other towns that suffered included Susa, Marj and Shahatt, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in Benghazi and other towns in eastern Libya.
Authorities in east and west Libya rushed to help residents of 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 assistance and teams to help with search and rescue efforts.
Derna is about 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of the capital Tripoli. It is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, who is allied with the east Libya government. West Libya, including Tripoli, is controlled by armed groups allied with another government.
Much of Derna was built by Italy when Libya was under Italian occupation in the first half of the 20th century. The city was once a hub for extremist groups in the yearslong chaos that followed the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.