Libya: Destruction in Derna resembles a war zone 3:17

(CNN) -- Tarek Fahim was taking videos of the water filling up behind the dam in Libya's Derna Valley on Saturday night. Until 1:30 a.m., Storm Daniel was just wind and rain. When he returned home an hour later, very little time passed between the time he heard the dam burst and the water gushing out of his street.

"The amount of water and the cars it pushed looked like an earthquake," he says.

He moved the family to the rooftop and they climbed into a water tank as the water continued to rise. They survived. "Maybe one percent of those who lived on the ground floors survived," he says of his neighborhood around al-Fanar Street.

When the water level gradually dropped, he went back down to see his neighbors, "but there was mud one meter high in the street," he recalls. "In 15 buildings around me alone, 33 people died," he says. When he begins to list the names of the friends he lost, he bursts into tears.

In the eastern Libyan city of Derna, thousands have died and thousands more are still missing after catastrophic flooding hit the city in the early hours of Sunday.


Tarek's bare feet are covered in mud from walking the side streets helping neighbors remove debris from their homes. Trauma and loss are visible on all faces. Men sit in front of their hollowed-out houses, some silent, others sobbing.

Ayman Al-sahili/Reuters

Across the street, Talal Fartas checks what's left of her jewelry, picking up gold necklaces and bracelets from the mud. "The safe was dragged away. It's all gone," he says.

Of what was formerly sold by the shops that lined the street, only a few vestiges remain. Pieces of metal hang from the ceilings of destroyed shops. Vehicles are trapped on the terraces and entrances of low-rise buildings. A purple lunch box sits beneath a tangle of trees and a lamppost. A couple of blocks further north, the debris piled up on the sides of the road grows larger and larger until it becomes a strip of rubble.

A man walks past the graves of victims of flash floods in Derna. (Yousef Murad/AP)

When the two dams outside the city broke, they unleashed a powerful flood that washed away residential blocks. The eastern and western parts of Derna are now separated by a wasteland of destruction that runs through the city all the way to the Mediterranean.

Rescuers scour collapsed buildings for survivors with little hope. Almost all they find are corpses and there are believed to be more under the piles of crumbling cement.

Back on al-Fanar Street, a man calls for help to pull the bodies of four children out from under the mud.

International aid and rescue missions are coming slowly, but barely reaching the scale of the devastation. Local volunteers and emergency workers from different parts of Libya did what they could immediately afterwards.

Abdel Wahab Haroun, 21, says he recovered 40 bodies from the sea on Sunday. A rope was tied around his waist connected to a row of volunteers to brave the high waves. "There were dead everywhere, children of a few months, old people, pregnant women. There are families of 30 to 40 people who have left," he says.

Haroun volunteers at a collection point for victims in the city set up in an open area by the sea. A rotten stench fills the air every time a corpse is brought in.

The remains of two people lie on the ground in half-filled black bags. A pickup truck pulls up with two more bodies wrapped in blankets. "This one is too decomposed," shouts one volunteer before stuffing them into white bags to load onto a larger truck. Officials try to document identities when possible before mass burials in a different location. A small truck periodically fumigates the air as doctors warn of health hazards.

'Derna is gone'

Along the damaged boardwalk, volunteers in protective suits explore the sea for bodies washed away by the sea. The crystal blue water has turned a murky brown. The waves push the broken furniture towards the shore. The wrecked vehicles are trapped in what remains of the wave barrier at sea.

"There are probably people in these cars that you see in the water, but we don't have the equipment to reach them," says Ibrahim Hassan, head of ambulance services in Kofra, southern Libya.

It needs heavy and more sophisticated equipment to recover these vehicles and search the water for the bodies of those still missing.

"This valley was a paradise full of pomegranates," says one volunteer as she waits for the next delivery of corpses.

"Derna is gone," says Abdel-Wahab.