DERNA, Libya—Search teams combed streets, wrecked buildings, and even the sea Wednesday to look for bodies in a coastal Libyan city where the collapse of two dams unleashed a massive flash flood that killed at least 5,100 people.
The Mediterranean city of Derna has struggled to get help after Sunday night’s deluge washed away most access roads. Aid workers who managed to reach the city described devastation in its center, with thousands still missing and tens of thousands left homeless.
“Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children,” Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, said over the phone from Derna. “Entire families were lost.”
Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding Sunday in many towns of eastern Libya, but the worst-hit was Derna. Two dams in the mountains above the city collapsed, sending floodwaters roaring down the Wadi Derna river and through the city center, sweeping away entire city blocks.
As much as a quarter of the city has disappeared, emergency officials said.
Waves rose as high as 7 meters (23 feet), Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, told broadcaster France24.
Mohammed Derna, a teacher in the city, said he, his family, and neighbors rushed to the roof of their apartment building, stunned at the volume of water rushing by. It reached the second story of many buildings, he said. They watched people below, including women and children being washed away.
“They were screaming, ‘Help, help,’” he said over the phone from a field hospital in Derna. “It was like a Hollywood horror movie.”
Derna lies on a narrow coastal plain, under steep mountains. Only two roads from the south remain usable, and they involve a long, winding route through the mountains.
Collapsed bridges over the river split the city center, further hampering movement.
Search teams went through shattered apartment buildings and retrieved the dead floating offshore in the Mediterranean Sea, al-Falah said.
Ossama Ali, a spokesman for an ambulance center in eastern Libya, said at least 5,100 deaths were recorded in Derna, along with around 100 others elsewhere in eastern Libya. More than 7,000 people in the city were injured.
A spokesman for the eastern Libyan interior ministry put the death tally in Derna at more than 5,300, according to the state-run news agency.
The number of deaths was likely to increase since teams are still collecting bodies, Ali said. At least 9,000 people are missing, but that number could drop as communications are restored.
At least 30,000 people in Derna were displaced by the flooding, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said.
The startling devastation pointed to 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 the result has been neglect of infrastructure in many areas.
Ahmed Abdalla, a survivor who joined the search-and-rescue effort, said they were putting bodies in the yard of a hospital before taking them for burial in mass graves at Derna’s sole intact cemetery.
“The situation is indescribable. Entire families dead in this disaster. Some were washed away to the sea,” Abdalla said by phone.
Derna is 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Benghazi, where international aid started to arrive on Tuesday.
Neighboring Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia, as well as Turkey, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates, sent rescue