Thousands of people are feared dead in eastern Libya after heavy flooding caused by Storm Daniel swept away entire neighbourhoods in multiple coastal towns with the eastern city of Derna “cut off completely” after two dams burst.
One-quarter of Derna was wiped out and more than 1,000 bodies have been recovered so far, a minister in the administration that controls the east said on Tuesday.
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“I returned from Derna. It is very disastrous. Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings. I am not exaggerating when I say 25 percent of the city has disappeared,” said Hichem Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation and member of the emergency committee.
“The number of bodies recovered in Derna is more 1,000,” he said, adding the final toll will be “really, really big”.
Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the country’s armed forces based in the east, told a news conference the death toll in Derna surpassed 2,000. He said between 5,000 and 6,000 people were reported missing.
Al-Mosmari attributed the catastrophe to the collapse of two nearby dams that caused a lethal flash flood.
Tamer Ramadan, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, confirmed the number of dead is likely to jump significantly.
“The death toll is huge and might reach thousands. We confirm from our independent sources of information the number of missing people is hitting 10,000 persons so far,” said Ramadan
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from the capital Tripoli in Libya’s west, said the collapse of the dams unleashed a massive wall of water.
“Some experts are saying more than 30 million cubic square metres of water was dumped into the city, and we’re starting to see pictures of entire neighbourhoods destroyed.”
Derna resident Ahmed Mohamed said, “We were asleep and when we woke up we found water besieging the house. We are inside and trying to get out.”
Videos posted online by residents of the city showed substantial devastation. Entire residential areas were erased along a river that runs down from the mountains through the city centre. Multistorey apartment buildings that once stood well back from the river were partially collapsed into the mud.
“There’s no internet connection, no electricity … the magnitude of the disaster that has happened in the city [Derna] is just growing by the minute,” Hani Shennib, president of the National Council on US-Libya Relations, told Al Jazeera.
“Numbers are expected to grow … to at least 5,000 victims,” Shennib said.
“The tragedy that is happening there is not only absent from the international community but also there are challenges with reaching out to inform the world of what is happening.”
Search-and-rescue operations will be a challenge as Libya remains divided between two rival administrations, one in the east and one in the west, each backed by militias and foreign governments.
Meanwhile, the Libyan Presidential Council based in Tripoli declared three parts of the country’s eastern Cyrenaica province a disaster area due to floods and asked for international help.
Footage from across eastern Libya showed people stranded on the roofs of their vehicles as the storm hit the cities of Benghazi, Susa, Bayda, al-Marj and Derna on Sunday and Monday.
Outside Derna, at least 12 people have been reported dead in the eastern town of Bayda, the town’s main medical centre said. Seven others were reported dead in the coastal town of Susa in northeastern Libya, according to the Ambulance and Emergency Authority. Seven more people were reported dead in the towns of Shahatt and Omar al-Mokhtar.
Another person was confirmed dead on Sunday. The man was stuck in his car and surrounded by flooding in the eastern town of al-Marj, according to Walid al-Arfi, spokesperson for the emergency response agency in eastern Libya.
The Libyan Red Crescent said it lost contact with one of its workers as he attempted to help a family stuck in Bayda. Dozens of others were reported missing, and authorities fear they could have died in the floods that destroyed homes and other properties in several towns in eastern Libya, according to local media.
The missing include seven members of the Libyan National Army (LNA), a force led by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar that controls the eastern part of the divided country, LNA spokesperson Ahmad Mismari said.
Heavy floods washed away vehicles, footage broadcast by eastern Libya’s Almostakbal TV showed. The channel also posted pictures of a collapsed road between Susa and Shahat, the home to the Greek-founded and UNESCO-listed archaeological site Cyrene.
Libya’s eastern-based parliament declared three days of mourning. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the internationally-recognised interim government in Tripoli, also declared three days of mourning in all the affected cities, calling them “disaster areas”.
Four key oil ports in Libya – Ras Lanuf, Zueitina, Brega and Es Sidra – were closed from Saturday evening for three days, two oil engineers said.
Authorities declared a state of extreme emergency, closing schools and stores and imposing a curfew.
Though his administration holds little sway in eastern Libya, Dbeibah said on Sunday that he had directed all state agencies to “immediately deal” with the damage and floods in eastern cities.
Dbeibah’s government is recognised by the Central Bank of Libya, which disburses funds to government departments across the country.
The United Nations in Libya said it was following the storm closely and would “provide urgent relief assistance in support of response efforts at local and national levels”.