Up to 20,000 people may have drowned in the Libyan city of Derna this week while they were sleeping, according to its mayor.
Floods from Mediterranean Storm Daniel collapsed two dams and sent waves of more than 20 feet through the port city in the country’s east.
“The situation in the city of Derna is very big and surprising. Our capabilities before the storm and the storm were not able to deal with it,” said Mayor Abdel Monim Al-Qaidi.
“Although the skills are better and improved, we cannot face the scene we saw,” he told Sky News Arabia on Wednesday night. He said the death toll in the city could eventually exceed 20,000, based on estimates from residents of the washed-out areas.
Earlier estimates by aid agencies and government officials put 10,000 people missing, with more than 5,000 dead.
An accurate count is incredibly difficult given the level of devastation and limited infrastructure in the region, with bodies still washing ashore and being buried in mass graves.
If confirmed, a death toll of more than 20,000 would mean that a fifth of the city’s population was killed.
A humanitarian disaster is unfolding for survivors, with around 30,000 displaced from Terna, according to the United Nations agency, the International Organization for Migration.
Satellite images show the extent of the destruction caused by the floods. A government official on Wednesday estimated that 25% of the city was completely destroyed or washed away.
Hopes of finding survivors faded as the massive cleanup and rescue operation began.
The Tripoli Public Service Agency began removing rubble from the former population center of Derna on Wednesday in a 24-hour operation, state-run Libyan News Agency reported.
Its workers are divided into three teams: one to clear debris where victims may be trapped, one to drain standing water and one to clear flooded buildings and cars and reopen roads.
The mammoth task of rebuilding Terna and providing immediate aid is complicated by the legacies of a decade-long civil war that has left two rival governments ruling eastern and western Libya.
Terna is controlled by the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, and based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The rest of the country is run by the Government of National Unity in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
The rift has hampered reconstruction efforts for years — but aid workers say the two sides are now talking to each other.
“Both governments have reached out to the international community and requested services and assistance,” said Tauhid Pasha of the International Organization for Migration. BBC Radio Wednesday night.
“The National Unity Government has given us its support and made its request on behalf of the entire country and they are coordinating with the government in the east,” he said.