Cairo — Rescue teams in eastern Libya have retrieved the bodies of more than 1,000 victims from the rubble in a coastal city that has been inundated by, an official said Tuesday after visiting the devastated area. Authorities have estimated that as many as 2,000 people are believed to have been killed in the city of Derna alone from flooding brought by Mediterranean Storm Daniel.
“I returned from Derna. It is very disastrous. Bodies are lying everywhere — in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” the Reuters news agency quoted Hichem Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation and a member of the emergency committee for the administration in eastern Libya, as saying in a phone interview.
“The number of bodies recovered in Derna is more 1,000,” he told Reuters, adding that it was too early to gauge the full scale of the loss of human lives, but that he expected it to be “really, really big.”
“I am not exaggerating when I say that 25% of the city has disappeared,” Chkiouat told Reuters. “Many, many buildings have collapsed.”
Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the country’s armed forces based in the east, said at a news conference on Monday that there were between 5,000 and 6,000 reported missing. Al-Mosmari attributed the catastrophe to the collapse of two nearby dams, causing a lethal flash flood.
Many towns in eastern Libya have been hit by the floods, but the worst destruction was in Derna, where heavy rainfall and floods broke the dams and washed away entire neighborhoods.
Ossama Hamad, prime minister of the east Libya government, said 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,: 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.
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.
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 had 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 had buried more than 200 bodies in one cemetery on Monday evening.
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 video 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.
“The United States is coordinating with UN partners and Libyan authorities on how we can assist the ongoing relief efforts,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.
The U.S. embassy in Libya similarly wrote on social media that it was in touch with U.N. and Libyan authorities to determine how to most effectively direct assistance to those in need.
Derna is about 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 andin 2011.