Driving to Derna early in the morning was like arriving in a ghost town. The city, decimated by flash floods that swept away homes and streets earlier this week, was eerily quiet.
Even at night, damage and destruction could be seen everywhere. In daylight a scene of utter devastation unfolded.
For our team, who traveled to the area with the Libyan National Army (LNA), it was like driving into a war zone where massive bombs had gone off.
At least 5,000 people have died in Libya, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Thursday, and thousands more are feared missing.
Everyone we have spoken to here fears and believes that the death toll will increase significantly in the coming days.
Authorities told us that the destruction and loss of life occurred within about 90 minutes after the two dams above Derna burst, causing floods that swept through the city, sweeping away entire neighborhoods, homes and infrastructure, and sweeping them into the sea.
People are shocked. This is a country that has experienced years of turmoil since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011, but the disaster has hit Libyans hard.
They say they still can’t understand what happened. They are used to war and death, but nothing could have prepared them for this: they feel as if an entire city has been razed to the ground.
As we entered one of the city’s entrances early in the morning, there was a large handwritten sign that said “Sad Derna.” Two young men were sitting next to him, around a campfire, on an otherwise completely dark street, their feet covered in mud and their clothes covered in dust. They greeted the LNA escort, smiled and made a “V” hand gesture.
City officials are dealing with search and rescue, recovery, draining flood water and helping displaced people – situations they have never handled before. An official told CNN that he does not believe the search for survivors is over.
Libyan officials say bodies are still washing up on the shores of Derna, days after the wall of water devastated the city.
The detritus of people’s lives can also be seen in the waters of the Mediterranean: houses, door frames, windows, furniture, clothes, cars, everything.
Meanwhile, at least 30,000 people have been displaced there, the International Organization for Migration said Thursday. Concern for the well-being of survivors is increasing.
The head of the ICRC delegation in Libya said it would take “many months, perhaps years” for residents to recover from the devastation caused by the heavy rains of Storm Daniel.
Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images
A man carries a child on his shoulder as he passes through an area damaged by a flash flood in Derna on September 14, 2023.
Flooding has damaged roads and bridges, making access to the city and its surroundings difficult. On Thursday night it took more than seven hours to drive from Benghazi airport to Derna, a trip that would normally take three hours.
This, combined with an uncertain security situation, makes it difficult for humanitarian aid to pass through. However, some Libyans told CNN they felt this tragedy had united a divided country, at least for now.
Libya has been riven by political turmoil since civil war broke out in 2014, and now has two rival governments, the government in Benghazi, backed by the eastern parliament, and the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
But on the way from Benghazi, many cars could be seen arriving from different cities across Libya – from the far west and the western mountains, or the coastal city of Misrata to the south – carrying volunteers or bringing aid.
Some drivers had spray-painted their cars or were waving flags with a phrase that could be translated as “brotherly solidarity” or “run to the aid of our brothers.”
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Volunteers coming to Derna from all over the country are trying to help with recovery efforts. But some told CNN they were not prepared to deal with this type of situation.
One young man described how volunteers tied ropes around their bodies to dive into the sea and pull out the bodies. He said he had single-handedly removed 40 bodies in the course of a day.
Volunteers say they need heavy equipment that can remove large objects from the sea, such as cars feared to contain bodies. They need divers and diving equipment, they say.
Some international support can be seen here, including a Turkish rescue team in an inflatable boat. But it is not enough to deal with this disaster.
And upon landing at Benina Airport in Benghazi, there did not appear to be a large influx of aid, as one would expect after a catastrophe of this scale.
LNA officials said, however, that the support they have received from countries that have sent teams has helped them cope with an unprecedented situation.
Mohammad Shteiwi, a social media activist from Misrata who came to Derna to help with rescue operations, told CNN that he had seen international diving teams pull eight bodies from the water on Friday afternoon.
“Divers told me they saw hundreds of bodies about 15 to 20 kilometers east of the port of Derna,” he said in a phone call.
“I saw so many dead bodies in the last two days. I counted at least 200 bodies that washed ashore. These were bodies that were in buildings, swallowed by the sea and pushed back to shore. The statistics are not exact, there are a lot of numbers floating around. All I can tell you is that operations are ongoing. “I took out the bodies myself.”
Shteiwi said his “heart aches for all those who have been lost” but that he saw a positive sign in the coming together of eastern and western Libyans.
“Security forces that were once separate are now working together, as if those differences were a thing of the past. It hurts to see that this unification is the result of immense misery and immense pain.”