In Libya’s Flood-shattered East, a Disaster of ‘Mythic Proportions’

Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
An aerial view of Derna on Thursday.

DERNA, Libya – The floods came without warning, sweeping entire neighborhoods off the map and sleeping families out to sea. Five days later, bodies are still floating in a local sports stadium and washing up on the beach.

Up to 20,000 people are feared dead in Libya’s devastated east, authorities said Thursday. In Derna, the worst-hit city, most of the survivors have fled. The ones who remain are searching for the missing, hollow-eyed and bone-tired, hoping for some sign of their relatives.

When Washington Post reporters reached the city, they found destruction on a massive scale. A whole district had been dragged away by the raging waters. The force of the flood gouged asphalt from the sidewalks and spun cars together so brutally that they resembled metal chrysalides in the silt.

Men, women and children surrounded ambulances as they reached the hospitals, desperate to learn who was inside the body bags they carried. “Where’s my family?” one man shouted above the others. “We need answers!”

Some said they had been on the phone to their loved ones Sunday night as the waters rose to their knees, and then to their necks. Outside one hospital, Najiya Shaeri, 52, said her brother-in-law, Fathy, had thrown his daughters from the window to save them as the walls of their home caved in. Shaeri found the girls clinging to the roof of a car. There was no trace of their parents.

On Thursday, the family’s youngest child, 10-year-old Ghufran, was waiting outside a hospital for news of her older sister, now in the intensive care unit, dazed and incredibly still. Shaeri wept as she kept a protective hand on the child’s shoulder. “Looking after the girls is our job now,” she said. “Trying to calm them down, trying to make them feel our love.”

When the rains from Storm Daniel began last week, people came out into the tree-lined streets. Children danced in the puddles, a rare sight in this arid region. But in the hills above the city, two dams were on the brink of collapse. When they burst on Sunday, the wave that engulfed Derna was more than 23 feet high.

There was no evacuation plan; no one was told to leave.

Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, Derna’s mayor, told the Saudi channel al-Arabiya on Thursday that the death toll was likely between 18,000 and 20,000, “based on the number of neighborhoods destroyed.”

But a final accounting will take time, or may never come. Othman Abdul Jalil, minister of health for Libya’s eastern government, said Thursday that 3,000 bodies have been interred outside Derna. Another 2,000 have yet to be buried. Teams of divers are still combing the sea for victims.

“There are conflicts in the number. … What matters is that the deaths number in the thousands,” said Ahmed Zouiten, the World Health Organization’s Libya representative.

“This disaster is of mythic proportions,” he added. “Now, the retrieval of the corpses is important, as is burying the corpses before they disintegrate.”

Kamal al-Siyawi, the head of a commission responsible for the missing, beseeched citizens to “mark the locations of the cemeteries,” to help the government record the deaths and take samples required for identification.

It was an avoidable tragedy, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization said Thursday, lamenting the lack of public services in Libya, a country divided between rival governments: one in the west and one in the east.

“They could have issued a warning, and also the emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people, and we could have avoided most of the human casualties,” Petteri Taalas, the head of the WMO, told reporters.

The scale of the disaster was apparent even 85 miles outside Derna, the landscape marked by stagnant floodwaters and clogged fields. Families fleeing the flood zone crawled through traffic in cars caked in red silt; dozens of aid trucks and excavators headed in the opposite direction.

Authorities warned civilians to stay away from Derna: “The area needs to be closed off completely, confined completely,” Osama Hammad, prime minister of the eastern government, told Libyan TV channel al-Masar in the early hours of Thursday.

But later that day, some were still making the journey, seeking news of family members. They had received what appeared to be final text messages – “I love you,” read one.

Two Egyptian men learned from friends that their uncles were missing. Others had heard nothing.

Outside an obstetrics hospital in Derna, 37-year-old Emad Ayad wore a mask, a vain attempt to block the stench of death. He had traveled from the eastern city of Benghazi to find his sister Khadija and her four children. “A sad night for all of us,” her last Facebook status said.

Ayad found nothing but smooth red silt where her house had been. He waited for hours as a steady stream of ambulances brought waterlogged bodies to the hospital courtyard. None were Khadija. He said he would keep waiting. He didn’t know what else to do.

“I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to drink, I just want to find her,” he said. “They’re burying all these bodies, but how will we know who they are? Will they help us find them again?”

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it had distributed 6,000 body bags across the flood zone to help authorities extend dignified treatment to the dead.

Zouiten said a “tremendous” number of displaced residents required urgent medical care. Three of the region’s hospitals are completely out of service; several others are only partially operational, he said.

Inside the hospital in Derna, not a single staff member said they had slept for more than two hours at a time since the flood. On duty that night, the hospital manager recalled a crashing sound he thought must be bombs – a familiar noise in this war-racked nation – and then a terrible roar.

The hospital received more than 100 bodies in the first hour, he said. By the end of the first day, it was 1,000.

Marzouga Wanees, a nurse, slumped exhausted in her chair as she listed everything the hospital needed. Mattresses, new scrubs – she had not changed out of hers in four days – blankets and, above all, rest.

On Thursday afternoon, French civil defense workers were setting up a field hospital in the city. Lt. Gen. Mohamed Manfour, the head of the air base where the aid effort is being coordinated, said the facility would be able to treat 100 patients, including emergency cases.

But few survivors were being found, and many of the dead were still trapped. “The bodies are in the seawater, and under rubble. So we need specialized rescue teams,” said Husam Abdel Gawi, 31, a volunteer rescue worker. There were only a few such teams on the ground, he said, including one from Turkey.

As the sun dipped in the sky, the city felt very alone. In the hospital entrance, all at once, the crowd exploded in fury and grief.

“They didn’t tell us,” a doctor was shouting hoarsely. “No one told us this would happen.”

There were cracks in the dams, another man cried out. “The municipality had a budget to fix them and they didn’t.”

More people were nodding now and, outside on the sidewalk, the families were shouting too.

The doctor who had started the commotion was on duty when the floodwaters roared in. Some of the first bodies she received were babies. She learned later that 11 of her own family members were missing, presumed dead.

As she left the hospital on Thursday evening, she hung her head and began to cry.