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Aid groups rush to Libya after catastrophic flooding

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Officials in Libya say the bodies of more than 2,000 people have been recovered in the city of Derna.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A storm devastated towns and cities along the coast of northeastern Libya. It ruptured dams, caused a torrent of water to flood entire neighborhoods. And already, Libya is decimated by more than a decade of conflict. And it's a country divided between two rival governments.

MARTÍNEZ: For more on how that may complicate the recovery, we're joined now by NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Ruth, what can you tell us about the scale of the disaster?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, you know, A, how bad this is is really becoming clear just now, days after the storm. So with phone lines down and the chaos caused by the destruction, information has been hard to get. But Anas El Gomati, who's the director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan think tank, he's been getting a picture from residents inside Derna city. And he called the scale of the damage epic and said it's like nothing Libya has seen in its modern history.

ANAS EL GOMATI: It's torn through half the city. A quarter of it's still submerged in water. Images and videos that are coming out are of people who have left their home and are wandering the street - have stopped looking at the streets, and they're now all just facing the ocean, looking for bodies that might emerge - their loved ones and friends and family. It's horrific.

SHERLOCK: Health officials say more than 2,000 corpses have been collected as of this morning in the city, and rescuers expect that toll to rise still. There's footage showing bodies filling a yard of a hospital and more videos showing mass graves as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. What an awful, awful picture. I mean, how is the rescue going so far?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the problem is access to the affected areas has been so hard with roads cut off. There was very little help to get to Derna for the first 36 hours after the storm. Now responders are in the city. Farag El-Hassi of the Libyan Red Crescent - he's in the organization's emergency response room - and he told me they're getting calls from people still stranded in the storm debris or trapped under the rubble. And they're also looking at how to cope with all of those that have lost their homes.

FARAG EL-HASSI: We are estimating the numbers of the people - the IDPs. More than 20,000 people will be internally displaced. Our rescue team are currently still working crazy hours conducting rescues and research.

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So he's saying, you know, more than 20,000 people have become internally displaced by this situation. So it's a huge challenge for rescue services in a country that's already torn up by war.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Tell us more about that. How could that possibly affect the scale of this disaster?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, this is a country that's been devastated by conflict since 2011, when rebels backed by NATO removed the dictator, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. Now, the country has ruled by rival governments, and all of this has left it impoverished and lacking in services. And in this context, the dams broke - that caused the flood in Derna - simply hadn't been maintained, and they'd become worn down and flimsy. And you have to add to this picture that meteorologists say this storm was of a particular strength. There were 16 inches of rain dumped on eastern Libya in a short time. But they say the intensity of the storm fits with a pattern of more extreme weather caused by man-made climate change. So that's a new dimension that Libya may now have to keep facing in the future as well.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.