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Rival factions are making a storm-driven natural disaster in Libya worse

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, let's try to get a picture of flooding in Libya. It has turned into a massive disaster. And NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who knows the country well, has been monitoring this from just across the Mediterranean in Rome. She's on the line. Ruth, welcome.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to picture a map of Libya here. Pretty large country, really, with a very long coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. How did this flooding develop?

SHERLOCK: Well, this was a huge storm that hit the Mediterranean, Storm Daniel. And it hit on the northern coast to the east. And it hit these towns, Benghazi, Derna, a series of towns between the regional capital, Benghazi, and the Egyptian border.

INSKEEP: You know, I've been through some of those cities, Benghazi and Derna and some of the others. And I'm just trying to picture them there on - if I remember - some of them steep hillsides, others in desert areas, all of them near the sea, all of them apparently vulnerable to floods.

SHERLOCK: That's right. These are dotted across a remote desert. And this storm hit these areas extremely hard. And the worst-hit area, Steve, is Derna because there are two dams nearby. And it's understood that these dams burst from the force of the flood. And those dams pushed a torrent of water that cut through the city of Derna down this river. And it just swallowed buildings whole. You know, entire parts of the city have just disappeared or been destroyed under the water. I'm - you know, I'm told that for a full day after the storm, it was - you know, phone lines were down. Roads into the city were broken. So it was extremely hard to get a picture from there. But I did speak to one person, a local journalist who's from the area. He's called Ahmed al-Hudel (ph), and he managed to make it inside Derna. And he told me this is what he saw.

AHMED AL-HUDEL: I see many people - death in, like - on the street like that with no help and too much...

SHERLOCK: The line cut. And when we reconnected, he said he'd seen six-story buildings collapsed. I asked if there were people likely alive trapped under these, but he said he felt as though the residents in these areas would have been crushed or drowned. He says it's a disaster zone. Other survivors have been hearing - you know, I've been hearing about, say, that it sounded like an explosion when the dams burst. It was the dead of night when this happened. And you can imagine how terrifying it must have been.

INSKEEP: Ruth, as you talk about a six-story building collapsing and other buildings just disappearing amid the floods, I am thinking of another disaster. We've been covering - the earthquake to the west of there in Morocco, where it seems that traditional construction or poor construction led to a lot of buildings collapsing. It sounds like something similar may have happened in that area of Libya.

SHERLOCK: Absolutely. You know, this is an area that, you know, the dams broke. It's a sign of the broken infrastructure in the country. You know, since Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator, was removed in 2011 by rebels backed by NATO, there was a brief hope for democracy, but then everything really fell apart. So there's been basically conflict going in this country, and the country is divided now between rival governments. It's an extremely oil-rich place, so there's lots of foreign interest with different governments supporting different sides. Like, Russia supports Khalifa Haftar, the strongman that controls this part of Libya. And, you know, it's really a kind of failed state. So this is a natural disaster happening in a failed state, which makes the aid efforts all the more difficult.

INSKEEP: You said a strongman controlling that part of Libya, Ruth. Is there, then, any kind of governing structure that can reach out to help people?

SHERLOCK: There are local emergency responders. You know, and apparently, they have just managed to get inside the city. They started digging through the rubble to try to recover the dead. Help - some international help is on its way. But international aid groups say a lot more is needed to - for a proper response.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock covering the flooding in Libya. Ruth, thanks very much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thanks so much, Steve. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.