CAIRO (AP) — Emergency workers uncovered hundreds of bodies as they dug through the rubble of the eastern Libyan city of Derna on Tuesday, and 10,000 people were reported still missing after floodwaters breached dams and destroyed the city, sweeping away entire neighborhoods.
The Minister of Health in eastern Libya said that at least 700 bodies have been buried so far. The Derna Ambulance Authority estimated the current death toll at 2,300.
But Tamer Ramadan, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ envoy to Libya, said the number was likely to be much higher, in the thousands. He said at a UN press conference in Geneva via video from Tunisia that at least 10,000 people are still missing.
Ramadan said that the situation in Libya is “as devastating as the situation in Morocco,” referring to the devastating earthquake that struck the city of Marrakesh on Friday evening.
The devastation occurred in Derna and other parts of eastern Libya on Sunday evening, when a Mediterranean storm hit the coast. Residents said they heard loud explosions and realized that dams outside the city had collapsed, triggering flash floods in the Derna Valley, a river that runs from the mountains through the city to the sea.
Ahmed Abdullah, a resident, said the wall of water sweeping Derna “wiped out everything in its path.”
Videos posted online by residents showed large areas of mud and debris as the raging waters swept away residential neighborhoods on both banks of the river. Multi-storey residential buildings that were previously far from the river have their facades torn off and their concrete floors collapsed. The cars lifted by the water remained thrown on top of each other.
Residents of the city of about 90,000 were left alone in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and authorities in eastern Libya said they were unable to reach Derna. Most members of the eastern government arrived in the city on Tuesday.
Local emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents, were digging through the rubble to recover the dead. They also used rubber boats to retrieve the bodies from the water.
Video footage showed dozens of bodies covered with blankets lying in the courtyard of a hospital in Derna. Eastern Libya’s Health Minister, Othman Abdel Jalil, said he believed many bodies were trapped under rubble or washed into the Mediterranean Sea.
“We were stunned by the scale of the devastation,” Abdul Jalil told The Associated Press by phone from Derna. “The tragedy is so great, it is beyond the capacity of Derna and the government.”
Red Crescent teams from other parts of Libya also arrived in Derna on Tuesday morning, but additional excavators and other equipment have not yet arrived, partly hampered by the blocking and destruction of roads.
Authorities said two dams on the Derna Valley collapsed, highlighting the weakness of Libya’s infrastructure after more than a decade of chaos. The oil-rich country remains divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and the other in the west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.
Derna is controlled by the forces of military commander Khalifa Haftar, the strongman in the government of eastern Libya, based in Benghazi.
Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow specializing in Libya at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said that local authorities had neglected Derna for years, and often discussed its development but never acted.
“Even the maintenance aspect was simply absent. Everything was delayed,” he said.
Aid has also begun arriving at a staging point in Benghazi, 250 kilometers (150 miles) west of Derna. Egyptian military officials arrived in Benghazi, accompanied by a rescue team and helicopters. The Tripoli-based government of western Libya sent a plane carrying 14 tons of medical supplies and health workers to Benghazi.
The US special envoy to Libya, Richard Norland, said on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, that the United States is coordinating with the United Nations and local authorities to evaluate how best to target official US assistance. Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also promised to provide assistance to search and rescue efforts.
The storm struck other areas in eastern Libya, including the city of Al-Bayda, where about 50 people were reported killed. The Al-Bayda Medical Center, the main hospital, was flooded with water, and patients were evacuated, according to footage posted by the center on Facebook.
Other towns that suffered include Sousse, Marj, and Shahat, according to the government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took refuge in schools and other government buildings in the city of Benghazi and other places in eastern Libya.
Northeastern Libya is one of the most fertile and green regions of the country. The Jabal Akhdar region, where Al-Bayda, Al-Marj and Al-Shahat are located, records one of the highest average annual rainfall in the country, according to the World Bank.
Derna is famous for its whitewashed houses and palm gardens, much of it 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 chaotic years following the NATO-backed uprising that ousted and killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
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