After more than a decade of chaos, Libya remains divided between two rival administrations: one in the east and one in the west, each backed by different militias and foreign governments. The conflict has left the oil rich North African country with crumbling and inadequate infrastructure.
Derna was declared a disaster zone and more bodies were still under the rubble in the city’s neighbourhoods, or washed away to the sea, according to Abduljaleel, the health minister.
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 centre. Multi-story apartment buildings that once stood well back from the river were partially collapsed into mud.
Abduljaleel said the city was inaccessible and bodies were scattered all over, according to Libya’s state-run news agency. “The situation was more significant and worse than we expecte … an international intervention is needed,” he was quoted as saying.
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. Excavators and other equipment have yet to arrive in Derna.
Many described scenes of chaos when floods hit the center. They heard loud explosions at night and realised 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 buried more than 200 bodies in one cemetery on Monday. Footage overnight showed dozens more bodies on the ground, covered by blankets or sheets, in a hospital yard in Derna.
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 footage shared by the centre 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 the city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.
Northeast Libya is one of the country’s most fertile and green regions. The Jabal al-Akhdar area — where Bayda, Marj and Shahatt are located — has one of the country’s highest average annual rainfalls, according to the World Bank.
Authorities in eastern and western Libya rushed to Derna. The Health Ministry in Tripoli said a plane carrying 14 tonnes of medical equipment, drugs and body bags, along with health care workers headed on Tuesday to Benghazi. Other agencies across the country said they would send humanitarian aid to 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 US Embassy said on Monday it was contacting the United Nations and Libyan authorities on how to deliver aid to the most affected areas.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi convened his military commanders on Tuesday to arrange urgent assistance to Libya. He said in televised comments that the military would deploy equipment and personnel in coordination with eastern Libyan forces to help affected communities.
Known for its white-painted houses and palm gardens, Derna is about 900 kilometres east of the capital of Tripoli. It is controlled by the forces of powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, who is allied with the east Libya government. The rival government in west Libya, based in Tripoli, is allied with other armed groups.
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 years-long chaos that followed the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.