Derna libya
This handout picture released on the account of the Libyan Red Crescent on the X (formerly Twitter) platform on September 13, 2023, shows a general view of destruction in the wake of floods after the Mediterranean storm "Daniel" hit Libya's eastern city of Derna. Image Credit: AFP

Derna: The wall of water several stories high smashed into apartment buildings, drowning entire families in minutes.

One man lost at least 13 members of his extended family. Fadellalah has yet to hear about the fate of another 20, several days after two dams burst above the Libyan coastal city of Derna, unleashing epic floods that killed thousands, wiped out neighborhoods and washed some of the dead into the sea.

Thousands of others like Fadellalah are frantically trying to find out who survived the rain-swollen rampage.

As a powerful storm bore down on his hometown, the information technology worker in Libya’s capital of Tripoli called his family Sunday to urge them to move to higher ground.

“No one expected this,” said Fadelallah, who asked that his surname not be used because he fears reprisal from government officials and armed groups who could view his story as criticism of their efforts.

“Some of them didn’t have cars. They didn’t have a way to get out,” he said of his family.

Torrential rains from Mediterranean storm Daniel gushed down steep mountainsides . Those who survived recount nightmarish scenes, with bodies piling up quicker than authorities can count them.

While many towns in eastern Libya saw deadly flooding, Derna, renowned for its white villas and palm trees, was the worst-hit. Footage captured by The Associated Press showed apartment buildings and office blocks carved open by the waters, and wrecked cars dotted the port city’s beach promenade.

The city had no evacuation plans, and many residents said they didn’t know they were in danger until they heard the explosive sound of the dams rupturing.

derna libya storm flood
This combination of handout satellite pictures created and released by Maxar Technologies on September 13, 2023, shows a general view of the downtown city of Derna before floods, on July 1, 2023 (top) and a general view of the downtown city of Derna after floods, on September 13, 2023, following the Mediterranean storm "Daniel" which hit Libya's eastern city of Derna (bottom). Image Credit: AFP

Ibrahim Moussa said the nearest dam burst in the early hours of Monday.

“What descended was a torrent of debris killing everyone,” he said. Now, the dead are trapped under several meters (feet) of mud and detritus.

Location proved the difference between life and death.

Fadelallah said all 13 deceased members of his family lived in a neighborhood near the river valley. Their bodies were recovered and buried by the Red Crescent, their names inked on a list of the deceased sent to him by the aid group.

Mohammed Derna, a 34-year-old teacher and father of two, said he and his family and neighbors rushed upstairs. Outside he saw people, including women and young children, just being carried away. They spent Sunday night on the roof of their apartment building before managing to get out Monday morning.

“They were screaming, help, help,” he said over the phone from a field hospital in Derna. “It was like a Hollywood horror movie.”

The startling devastation has underscored Libya’s vulnerability . The oil-rich country has been divided between rival administrations, each backed by competing armed militias, for almost a decade. It has been rocked by conflict since a NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Both governments, and their various international patrons, have banded together to help those affected. But progress has been slow. Key bridges, roads and other infrastructure are gone. Derna, which had a population of 90,000, largely was cut off from the world before the first aid convoys arrived late Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, at least 30,000 people were displaced by the flooding in Derna, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said. Many fled to nearby cities and towns less impacted by the storm.

One of them is Ahlam Yassin, a 30-year-old housewife, who headed to the eastern city of Tobruk.

libya main-1694510348247
This handout picture provided by the office of Libya's Benghazi-based interim prime minister on September 11, 2023 shows a view of destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the eastern city of Derna, about 290 kilometres east of Benghazi, in the wake of the Mediterranean storm "Daniel". At least 150 people were killed when freak floods hit eastern Libya, officials said on September 11, after the storm's torrential rains battered Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. (Photo by The Press Office of Libyan Prime Minister / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO /MEDIA OFFICE OF LIBYAN PRIME MINISTER (BENGHAZI)" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by - has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Derna, about 290 kilometres east of Benghazi] instead of [Benghazi]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (t Image Credit: AFP

“Everything has gone,” said Yassin, who waded barefoot with her family through knee-deep water to leave her neighborhood. “The city itself has gone.”

Mahmoud al-Baseer’s cousins lived less than kilometer (about half a mile) from one of the dams. They survived, he said, by quickly running to the upper floors of their three-story apartment block and were lucky that the structure held.

Al-Baseer, who lives in the United Kingdom, initially feared they had died. Until he reached them Tuesday evening, he struggled to watch the destruction from afar.

“I could not carry on watching those social media videos,” he said.

Fadelallah said his parents have made it to Benghazi, hoping to reunite with relatives from Derna. And he said he hopes to return soon to give his deceased relatives a proper Islamic funeral.