Whole families drowned within minutes in Libya’s floods after dams burst

People stand amid rubble in Libya.
People look for survivors amid the wreckage wrought by floods in Derna, Libya.
(Yousef Murad / Associated Press)
Share via

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 20 others, several days after two dams burst above the Libyan coastal city of Derna, unleashing epic floods that wiped out neighborhoods and washed some of the dead into the sea. Health authorities put the death toll in Derna at 5,500 as of Wednesday, with at least 9,000 people still missing.

Thousands of people like Fadellalah are frantically trying to find out who survived the catastrophe brought on by rains from powerful Storm Daniel.


Fadellalah, an information technology worker in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, called his family in his hometown Sunday to urge them to move to higher ground as the storm bore down.

“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.

In Morocco, an earthquake left thousands dead. In Libya, floods washed neighborhoods away. But lifesaving help is snarled in politics and rivalries.

Sept. 12, 2023

Torrential rains that gushed down steep mountainsides and into the city killed thousands. Those who survived recount nightmarish scenes, with bodies piling up faster 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. Video 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.

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

The city of Derna, in eastern Libya, has buried 700 victims of catastrophic flooding, with 10,000 people reported missing.

Sept. 12, 2023

“What descended was a torrent of debris killing everyone,” he said. Now, the dead are trapped under several 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 dead 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 during the flooding. He saw people outside, including women and young children, being swept away. Derna’s family spent Sunday night on the roof of their apartment building before managing to get out Monday morning.

Moroccan families displaced from their quake-destroyed homes face difficult decisions about whether or where to relocate as recovery efforts begin.

Sept. 14, 2023

“They were screaming, ‘Help, help!’” he said over the phone from a field hospital. “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 Kadafi 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, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration said. Many fled to nearby cities and towns less affected by the storm.


One of them is homemaker Ahlam Yassin, who headed to the eastern city of Tobruk.

“Everything has gone,” said Yassin, 30, who waded barefoot with her family through knee-deep water to leave her neighborhood. “The city itself has gone.”

Mahmoud Baseer’s cousins lived 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.

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

The death toll from severe rainstorms that lashed parts of Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria has risen to 11 after rescue teams recovered more bodies.

Sept. 6, 2023

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

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