The city of Derna has buried thousands of people in mass graves, Libyan officials said Thursday, as search teams scoured ruins left by devastating floods and the city’s mayor said that the death toll could triple or more.
The deluge swept away entire families on Sunday night and exposed vulnerabilities in the oil-rich country that has been mired in conflict since its 2011 uprising. Health officials have confirmed 5,100 deaths and say 9,000 people are still missing.
Daniel, an unusually strong Mediterranean storm, caused deadly flooding in towns across eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna. As the storm pounded the coast Sunday night, residents said they heard loud explosions when the dams outside the city collapsed. Floodwaters washed down WadiDerna, a valley that cuts through the city, crashing through buildings and washing people out to sea.
The startling devastation reflected the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country is divided by rival governments — one in the east, the other in the west — and one result has been widespread neglect of infrastructure. The dams that collapsed outside Derna were built in the 1970s and have not been maintained for years, local media reported.
Derna has begun burying its dead, mostly in mass graves, said eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel.
More than 3,000 bodies were buried by Thursday morning, the minister said, while another 2,000 were still being processed. He said most of the dead were buried in mass graves outside Derna, while others were transferred to nearby towns and cities.
Abduljaleel said rescue teams were still searching wrecked buildings in the city center, and divers were combing seawater off Derna.
Health authorities have put the death toll in Derna at 5,100 as of Wednesday. The number of deaths was likely to climb as searches are continuing, and at least 9,000 people are still missing, said Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance center in eastern Libya.
Local officials suggested that the death toll could be much higher than announced. In comments to the Saudi-owned Al Arabia television station, Derna Mayor Abdel-Raham al-Ghaithi said the tally could climb to 20,000, given the number of neighborhoods that were washed out.
An official with the U.N.’s World Health Organization in Libya said the fatalities could reach 7,000, given the number of people who were still missing. “The numbers could surprise and shock all of us,” said the official, who was not authorized to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The storm also killed around 170 people in other parts of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, the health minister said.
The dead in eastern Libya included at least 84 Egyptians, who were transferred to their home country on Wednesday. More than 70 came from one village in the southern province of BeniSuef. Libyan media also said dozens of Sudanese migrants were killed in the disaster.
The floods have also displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, and several thousand others were forced to leave their homes in other eastern towns, the U.N. agency said.
The floods damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, hampering the arrival of international rescue teams and humanitarian assistance.