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An aid worker on the ground in Libya reflects on the devastating flooding


It has been a horrible week in the northeast of Libya. Storm Daniel burst through two dams near the city of Derna and flooded most of the city. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed.

EMAD AL-FALAH: (Through interpreter) This catastrophe is unprecedented, a catastrophe honestly no one could have imagined.

SIMON: Emad al-Falah is part of the search-and-rescue committee in Derna, and he came from Benghazi to help. He said the destruction is shocking.

AL-FALAH: (Through interpreter) This entire area has been demolished completely because of the flood - all the buildings, cars, people, everything. Everything has been swept into the sea.

SIMON: So far, Libyan authorities say over 11,000 people are dead. More than 10,000 are missing. People have buried the dead in mass graves outside of the city.

AL-FALAH: (Through interpreter) It's rare that I haven't seen people crying. When you ask, people say my entire family was swept away.

SIMON: Al-Falah says people need food, shelter and medicine and also something more.

AL-FALAH: (Through interpreter) And we are trying hard to provide psychological support to these families.

SIMON: To tell us more about the rescue efforts, we're joined by Bashir Ben Amer, who is an aid worker with the International Rescue Committee. Thank you so much for joining us.

BASHIR BEN AMER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIMON: You were in Derna this week. What did you see?

BEN AMER: Well, we've done a lot this week, actually, and we've seen a lot as well. The city, the whole city, the city center that was on the coastal area that was - unfortunately doesn't exist anymore today. The survivors are looking for their loved ones. We're speaking about a city that's - its infrastructure is completely destructed - water, electricity, telecommunication, schools. The smell of death is everywhere. Currently, the rescue-and-search teams are working on the ground. This is the priority for the survivors and also for the health teams and for the Red Crescent, Red Cross societies and for all of us. At the same time, there are many difficulties related to access to the city. There used to be seven entrances for Derna. Now we have only one that's not paved, that's not reliable, that's not originally used frequently. So, yes, you can imagine how horrible is it and overwhelming as well for the rescue teams, for the aid teams and for everyone.

SIMON: We've heard reports that - and I know this question puts you in a difficult position, but how effective has the government been in trying to organize resources and getting help?

BEN AMER: You know that already Libya has been experiencing a protracted crisis since 2011, the instability, the political instability and so on, and the division, the political division as well. But the governmental institutions right now - let's mention the National Center of Disease Control, plus the Emergency and Ambulance Institution as well. They are there since Day 1. The aid also is coming from the communities, by the way. It's breathtaking how all the cities, individuals, communities, local organizations sent a huge amount of aid as well. But still, as I told you, the devastation is big, and the situation is dire. And we haven't really faced this kind of emergency, at least for the last 50 years. So you can imagine how people are trying to cope or to be able to absorb this. The capacity of the government - despite if they are doing their best or not, we don't imagine that they have the capacity to deal with such a tragedy.

SIMON: Mr. Ben Amer, I'm sure there are people listening to you who will wonder, what can I do to help? What do people need? How would you answer that?

BEN AMER: The needs are mounting day after day. Now we are speaking about more than 30,000 people displaced. They need emergency shelter. They need health assistance. They need sanitation, proper sanitation units, hygiene. For me now, Derna does not have any drinking water. It must be bottled. It must be coming from very clean source. They need psychological first aid. This is essential. They need emergency shelter. Again, the displacement will be enormous. Add to this, before the floods, already 800,000 people identified as in need for humanitarian assistance in Libya in 2023. Now we have another type of humanitarian crisis with different vulnerabilities, with different needs. Thousands will be added over the 800,000. And this is something that should be put in mind given the dire situation before and after now the floods.

SIMON: Bashir Ben Amer is an aide who's working with the International Rescue Committee in Libya. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

BEN AMER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.