At least 700 recovered bodies have been buried so far, the health minister for eastern Libya said. Derna’s ambulance authority put the current death toll at 2,300.
But the toll is likely to be far higher, in the thousands, said Tamer Ramadan, Libya envoy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He told a U.N. briefing in Geneva via videoconference from Tunisia that at least 10,000 people were still missing.
The situation in Libya was “as devastating as the situation in Morocco,” Ramadan said, referring to the deadly earthquake that hit near the city of Marrakesh on Friday night.
The destruction came to Derna and other parts of eastern Libya on Sunday night, when Mediterranean storm Daniel pounded the coast. Residents said they heard loud explosions and realized that dams outside the city had collapsed, unleashing flash floods down Wadi Derna, a river running from the mountains through the city and into the sea.
The wall of water sweeping through Derna “erased everything in its way,” said one resident, Ahmed Abdalla.
Videos posted online by residents showed large swaths of mud and wreckage where the raging waters had swept away the residential neighborhoods on both banks of the river. Multi-story apartment buildings that once were well back from the river had facades ripped away and concrete floors collapsed. Cars lifted by the water were left dumped on top of each other.
Residents in the city of some 90,000 were on their own in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, with authorities in eastern Libya saying they were unable to reach Derna. On Tuesday, most of the eastern government had arrived in the city.
Local emergency responders, including troops, government workers, volunteers and residents were digging through rubble to recover the dead. They also used inflatable boats to retrieve bodies from the water.
Footage showed dozens of bodies covered by blankets laid out in the yard of a hospital in Derna. Many bodies were believed trapped under rubble or had been washed out into the Mediterranean Sea, said eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.
“We were stunned by the amount of destruction ... the tragedy is very significant, and beyond the capacity of Derna and the government,” Abduljaleel told The Associated Press on the phone from Derna.
Red Crescent teams from other parts of Libya also arrived in Derna on Tuesday morning but extra excavators and other equipment had yet to get there, hampered in part by cutoff and destroyed roads.