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Vehicles pile up along the side of a coastal road in the eastern city of Derna, about 290 kilometres east of Benghazi, in the wake of the Mediterranean storm "Daniel". Image Credit: AFP

TUNIS: More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered in the eastern Libyan city of Derna after it was hit by floods, a minister in the eastern administration said on Tuesday, adding that the final toll was expected to be very big.

“I returned from Derna. It is very disastrous. Bodies are lying everywhere - in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” Hichem Chkiouat, minister of civil aviation and member of the emergency committee, told Reuters by phone.

“The number of bodies recovered in Derna is more 1,000,” he said. He expected the final toll would be “really, really big”.

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“I am not exaggerating when I say that 25 per cent of the city has disappeared. Many, many buildings have collapsed.”.

Officials in the administration that runs the eastern part of the divided country said on Monday that at least 2,000 people had been killed by the floods, though it was not immediately clear what that estimate was based on.

Thousands missing

Officials said thousands more were missing from the flood, which they said had swept away entire neighbourhoods after dams burst above the city.

A video shared on Facebook, which Reuters could not independently verify, appeared to show dozens of bodies covered in blankets on the pavements in Derna.

A view of flood water covering Al Mukhaili as a powerful storm hit the eastern Libya. Image Credit: AFP

Libya is politically divided between east and west and public services have crumbled since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that prompted years of conflict.

The internationally recognised government in Tripoli does not control eastern areas.

After pummelling Greece last week, Storm Daniel swept in over the Mediterranean on Sunday, swamping roads and destroying buildings in Derna, and hitting other settlements along the coast, including Libya’s second biggest city of Benghazi.

Meanwhile, head of Libya’s Government of National Unity Abdul Hamid Al Dbeibah said an emergency medical supply plane carrying 14 tonnes of supplies, medications, equipments, body bags and 87 medical and paramedic personnel is heading to Benghazi to support the areas affected by the floods.

Floodwaters burst through its two aging dams

Authorities in the east declared Derna a disaster zone on Monday after floodwaters burst through its two aging dams, inundating wide swaths of the city and leaving muddy, churning river in their wake.

“Derna is a tragedy, a catastrophe,” said Asmahan Belaoun, a Libyan lawmaker with family in the city.

In a phone interview from Benghazi, about 150 miles west of Derna, Belaoun said the water swept away streets and buildings and that she didn’t know if her family members survived.

“All I know is that their buildings are gone,” she said, adding that helicopters were needed to “save what is left to save” in the city.

Libya, which is split between two rival governments, was already coping with crumbling infrastructure - the result of a years-long civil war that broke out after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s.

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Destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the eastern city of Derna. Image Credit: AFP

Telecommunication networks were down in Derna on Monday, Belaoun and other officials said, making it difficult to assess the number of deaths and the true extent of the damage. Unverified videos posted on social media and aired on Libyan news networks showed apocalyptic scenes of a city submerged.

Osama Hamad, prime minister of the eastern Libyan government said: “We are alerting all medical apparatuses, all medical bodies, to move to Derna,” he said, his voice dipping in and out from the poor connection. “There are no communications - I had to leave Derna to get this connection.”

The eastern government’s interior minister, Issam Abu Zureibah, also said the damages are very serious. In an interview with the Saudi Arabia-based news channel Al Hadath, he said: “There are areas that were swept away entirely into the sea.”

The last instance of large-scale flooding in Libya was in 2019, when four people died in the southwest of the country, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Storm Daniel wreaked havoc in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria last week, killing at least 26 people in the three countries, according to the Associated Press.

A collapsed coastal road in the eastern city of Benghazi Image Credit: AFP

The storm formed amid the same extreme weather pattern linked to deadly flooding in Spain and extreme heat over large parts of western Europe that broke dozens of records.

After it triggered severe flooding in Greece, Daniel transitioned into what is known as a “medicane,” or tropical-like cyclone that occasionally forms over the Mediterranean Sea. The storm became stronger as it drew energy from the abnormally warm waters, a process intensified by human-caused climate change, before drifting to the south and unloading excessive rainfall over northeastern Libya.

Libya’s National Center of Meteorology reported rainfall totals of 414.1 millimeters - more than 16 inches - of rain over 24 hours in Bayda, where at least 12 people were reported dead, according to Floodlist, a website that aggregates flood information. Bayda only receives about half an inch in a typical September and about 21.4 inches of rain in an average year.

About 170 millimeters of rain - 2.75 inches - fell in Al Abraq in the Derna District. Witnesses told Reuters that the floodwaters in Derna reached as high as 10 feet.

The storm was expected to bring heavy rains and flooding to northern Egypt into Tuesday before dissipating. Egyptian’s Meteorological Authority warned residents in the greater Cairo area to prepare for major rainfall. But officials also said that the storm lost most of its energy over the arid terrain of Libya so its intensity was easing.

“We hope for the urgent opening of a sea corridor, and we hope for urgent international interference urgently,” said Ahmad Amadward, a member of Derna’s town council, in a video message carried by Derna’s Municipal Council Facebook page.-- Inputs from Washington Post