At least 2,300 people were murdered and many more were reported missing in Libya as severe flash floods breached river dams and ripped through an eastern coastal city, destroying entire neighborhoods.
As global alarm grew, numerous governments promised to send aid and rescue teams to the war-torn country, which had been overwhelmed by what one UN official described as a “calamity of epic proportions.”
Massive devastation destroyed Derna, a Mediterranean coastal city of around 100,000 people, where multi-story structures on river banks fell and houses and cars vanished in the roaring seas.
Emergency agencies recorded an initial death toll of around 2,300 people in Derna alone, with over 5,000 people still missing and 7,000 injured.
“The situation in Derna is shocking and very dramatic,” said Osama Ali of the Tripoli-based Rescue and Emergency Service. “We need more support to save lives because there are people still under the rubble and every minute counts.”
Storm Daniel, which made landfall in Libya on Sunday after hitting Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey earlier, caused the floods.
Derna, 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Benghazi, is surrounded by hills and divided by a river that is generally dry in summer but has turned into a raging torrent of mud-brown water that has carried away numerous important bridges.
The number of dead supplied by Libya’s emergency services largely corresponded to the bleak figures offered by the Red Cross and authorities in the east, who have warned that the death toll could increase higher.
“The death toll is huge and might reach thousands,” said Tamer Ramadan of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, three of whose volunteers were also reported dead.
“We confirm from our independent sources of information that the number of missing people is hitting 10,000 persons so far,” Ramadan added.
Elsewhere in Libya’s east, aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council said “entire villages have been overwhelmed by the floods and the death toll continues to rise”.
“Communities across Libya have endured years of conflict, poverty and displacement. The latest disaster will exacerbate the situation for these people. Hospitals and shelters will be overstretched.”
Libyan television footage showed scores of victims wrapped in blankets or sheets in Derna’s main square waiting to be identified and buried, as well as more bodies in Martouba hamlet to the southeast.
More than 300 victims were buried on Monday, but it was believed that many more were lost in the river that empties into the Mediterranean.
The storm also affected Benghazi and the Jabal al-Akhdar hill district. Flooding, mudslides, and other significant damage were reported in the surrounding area, with photographs showing overturned cars and trucks.
Libya’s National Oil Corporation, which has its main fields and terminals in eastern Libya, announced “a state of maximum alert” and banned flights between production sites where activity was claimed to be substantially decreased.
Oil-rich Libya is still reeling from the years of conflict and disorder that followed the NATO-backed popular revolt that deposed and murdered longtime ruler Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
The country is divided into two opposing governments: the UN-brokered, globally recognized administration in Tripoli and a breakaway administration in the disaster-stricken east.
Eastward access is restricted. Although phone and internet connections have been severely disrupted, the administration’s prime minister, Oussama Hamad, has reported “more than 2,000 dead and thousands missing” in Derna alone.
According to a Derna municipal council representative, the situation is “catastrophic” and calls for “national and international intervention.”
Libya’s UN-backed government, led by Abdelhamid Dbeibah, declared three days of national mourning on Monday, emphasizing “all Libyans’ unity.”
Aid convoys were heading east from Tripoli, and Dbeibah’s administration announced the deployment of two ambulance planes and a helicopter, as well as rescue teams, canine search squads, and 87 physicians and technicians to restore power.
According to authorities, rescue teams from Turkey have arrived in eastern Libya, while the United Nations and numerous countries have promised to send supplies.
Egypt declared three days of mourning “in solidarity” with Libya and earthquake-ravaged Morocco, offering to send relief to both.
Algeria said it was sending help in eight military planes, and Italy said it was “responding immediately to requests for assistance,” with an evaluation team on its way.
The US embassy claimed it has “issued an official declaration of humanitarian need in response to Libya’s devastating floods.”