Two dams collapsed and whole neighborhoods were washed away after a storm slammed the city of Derna, Libya and others along the Mediterranean coast this week.
The extent of the damage still isn’t known, but so far at least 5,000 people have been confirmed dead and thousands more are still missing.
Huda Akram is a doctor based in Benghazi, Libya, whose family hails from Derna. She spoke to All Things Considered’s Mary Louise Kelly on Wednesday, describing the harrowing scenes and what is happening now.
This interview contains details that are vivid and disturbing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mary Louise Kelly: May I begin by asking after your family — have you been able to reach them? Are they OK?
Huda Akram: Oh, well, my uncles and my aunts, they’re fine, both from my mother’s and my father’s side. But my grandmother, unfortunately, did not make it, with my aunt.
Kelly: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
Akram: But her son survived, though. At first, we heard there’s a storm coming. We thought it’s just a [bit] of rain, people can seek shelter on the rooftops of their houses. But then as things started to get bad, started to become worse, we heard that the dam collapsed. However, we only saw the footage. Even after we heard the dam collapse, we couldn’t even imagine that it would be this bad.
It’s just in split seconds. People who are anticipating, they managed to warn the others to run. And my cousin was telling me, “We were running and the water was just running after us.” And they stayed there on the rooftop — they were holding on because the water was also pushing them. There’s a lot of people [whose] entire households, entire family name from the grandfather to the husband and wives and grandchildren [were] completely wiped.
Kelly: I mentioned you’re a doctor, you’re a psychiatrist. So you will be thinking about this in terms of how on earth you process something like this, how do you deal with the shock now and the trauma that’s to come. Is that right?
Akram: Yes. I mean, we have a lot of PTSD. We deal with a lot of PTSD soldiers from all the armed conflicts before. And nothing compares to this. I could not imagine that we ever saw patients who — I mean, my cousin there, he’s six or seven, he’s just mute. He’s just mute. He literally saw his mother die in front of him. He was hanging on to a tree while my aunt and my grandmother drowned. And drowning in your own house being stuck is … is ugly. It just keeps haunting you how they must have felt while they were seeing [and] anticipating their death.
Kelly: I want people to understand that what you’re describing — an unspeakably awful situation — is made worse by the instability that Libya has experienced in recent years, political instability. What are you hearing about relief efforts, about trying to get help to people who desperately need it?
Akram: Yes, but the thing is that it’s a very small town, and people are always helping each other. Like, for us, we will host our uncles and aunts. My other uncle has an apartment here in Benghazi. So it’s all about, like, family and connections and people hosting each other. Because every person here has a relative there. The connection between Benghazi and Derna is very strong, and there’s always family members back and forth hosting. However, I hear help is going there, but no one is telling us that they’re actually receiving the help.
Kelly: Are you hearing anything from the government? Is there anything emerging in terms of leadership through this crisis?
Akram: Well, in all honesty, this town has been receiving millions of millions in budget for maintenance and infrastructure. And there has been a special budget for the dam. But it was never actually spent. It was never spent for that purpose. We don’t know where that money goes. It’s just the money goes and we don’t see it on the ground. And I was waiting for someone to apologize, or someone to resign, or someone to be even forcefully fired — no one did. The governor, the local governor of the city, said, “Well, we asked them to evacuate and, you know, it’s just God’s will.” That’s all he ever said. I don’t know how he is not being held accountable for this. No one is being held accountable. They’re treating this as if it’s a natural disaster. It’s not a natural disaster, it’s man. It’s negligence.