- The flood has transformed the port of Derna into a waste site filled dead bodies and rubble.
- Local tugboats and foreign teams have been enlisted to help clear the harbour.
- A naked woman was found alive inside a floating refrigerator.
Libya’s devastating flood has transformed Derna from a busy port welcoming fishing boats and ships loaded with goods and passengers into a dump brimming with rubble, car wrecks, and dead bodies.
Tugboat captain Ali al-Mismari, 60, recalled the night of 10 September when torrential rains caused by Storm Daniel battered the eastern Libyan city, bursting two dams and wiping out entire neighbourhoods.
At first, Mismari told AFP, he wanted to take his boat, the “Irasa,” out of the harbour to avoid putting the crew at risk and damaging the vessel.
But in the chaos of the storm, with water levels rapidly rising, he was unable to see the seawalls surrounding the port and navigate a safe exit.
“There was nothing (to do) but pray,” he said.
When day broke, the scale of the devastation became apparent.
Mismari said he saw “massive trucks, car tyres, people, houses, entire palm trees… heaters, washing machines, refrigerators” had all been washed into the harbour by the flash flood.
The official death toll from the disaster stands at more than 3 300 – but the eventual count is expected to be far higher, with international aid groups giving estimates of up to 10,000 people missing.
Since the tsunami-sized flood lashed Derna, port workers, fishermen and passers-by have largely abandoned the seafront, and only a handful of vessels, the Irasa included, were still there.
The tugboat was enlisted along with local and foreign teams to clear the bottom of the harbour.
The walkways surrounding the port are now paved with items retrieved by divers.
Captain Mohamed Chalibta, head of the port authority’s crisis management committee, said the search was concentrated on “objects that had sunk in the port”, including cars with people still thought to be inside.
An Emirati team, equipped with boats and jet skis, scoured one part of the harbour.
But the water was dark brown, filled with mud brought by the flood, and there was virtually “zero visibility”, according to one of the divers.
The Emirati search mission chief, Colonel Ali Abdullah al-Naqbi, gave his team directions, stressing the need to take full precautions.
Two by two, scuba divers secured with safety ropes descended from their yellow boat.
One emerged from the muddy water after a short while and said: “We tied (a rope) to a car. We can’t see anything.”
Another diver meanwhile found a second car.
Back on their boat, other team members helped the divers remove foliage that had become stuck on them and sprinkled fresh water on their faces.
The Emirati team, in coordination with Libyan authorities, called in a crane that pulled one of the mangled wrecks out the water.
An aerial picture shows a view of the damage in the aftermath of a devastating flood in eastern Libya’s city of Derna, on 16 September 2023. A week after a wall of water rushed through the Libyan coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths.
People search in the rubble of a building in a flash flood-damaged area in Derna on September 14, 2023. A global aid effort for Libya gathered pace on September 14 after a tsunami-sized flash flood killed at least 4,000 people, with thousands more missing, a death toll the UN blamed in part on the legacy of years of war and chaos.
Survivor in fridge
As it was being removed, mud, water, and what appeared to be human remains spilled out of the vehicle.
Lowered onto the dock, Libyan men in white coats, gloves, and face masks took over to check the vehicle for bodies, but on this occasion they found none.
Officials expect the process of clearing the port to take a long time.
Rescuers are also searching the sea beyond the harbour, with maritime experts saying many bodies may have been carried eastward by the current.
Hafez Obeid, head of the Libyan forensic team, said the salinity of the water helps to preserve bodies, making the identification process easier than for corpses found on land.
Aboard the Irasa, captain Mismari said, “Private fishing boats were the first to rush to the rescue” on the night of the disaster.
Next to him, technician Taoufik Akrouch, 61, recalled that “the water level rose above the dock by about one and a half metres.”
The Irasa began tilting violently, and the crew started its engines before cutting mooring lines.
At dawn, they heard a cry for help.
They found a survivor -a naked woman floating inside a refrigerator, according to two crew members.
They said she asked them: “Where is my sister?”
Another survivor rescued by Mismari’s team, an Egyptian, could not say how he got to the harbour.
“He had been sleeping and then found himself there,” Mismari said. “Maybe he had been unconscious.”