Discover more from Passport Stamps
Disasters in Morocco and Libya Highlight Fragility and Warn of Things to Come
For the last month or so, the power of nature has been on full display with devastating consequences. Wildfires in Canada, Maui, and Greece have been followed by epic rainfall and flooding in Vermont, Massachusetts, Nevada, Brazil, Spain, Greece, Libya, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The death toll, driven largely by the catastrophe in Derna, Libya, is in the tens of thousands.
It reminds me of my geology class in college, and the main takeaway was: nature always wins. Want to build a house along the coast in Chatham, Massachusetts? Go ahead, just know that the sea will be coming for it and it’s just a matter of time before the forces of nature reclaim your land.
Want to live in the Hollywood hills in a house on stilts overlooking the city? No problem, but the San Andreas fault will eventually have something to say about it.
Not too many people have great sympathy for those who defy nature and geology and build indulgent properties in high-risk settings.
But for many in the world, there isn’t much alternative. During my time living in Afghanistan, I worried about the impact of the conflict on the people of Kabul and myself, but even the worst attack could do only a fraction of the damage an earthquake would.
Like many cities in poor countries, Kabul is a city sprawling out of control with inadequate infrastructure, notional building codes, and an essentially illegal villages and neighborhood barely clinging to the craggy peaks that ring and bisect the city. Decades of people fleeing poverty and conflict in rural areas led to an informal building boom of poorly built houses climbing higher and higher in the city.
Thus, my greatest fear when living there wasn’t necessarily conflict and violence, but the inevitable earthquake. Anything mid-6 or above centered near Kabul and the mountains would simply shake off the primitive houses. It would be an order of magnitude worse than the 2015 Nepal earthquake and probably worse than the Syria-Turkey earthquake in February.
During my time in Kabul, I experienced four or five small earthquakes. One was powerful enough to make my single-story house sway back and forth and sent Squeak diving under the kitchen cabinets. I couldn’t help but wonder if that quake was going to escalate into “the big one.”
Fortunately, it didn’t. But it did cause damage and kill some people close to the epicenter, which if I recall was 50-to-60 miles from Kabul.
Several times when I lived in Afghanistan, I reported on destruction caused be natural disasters and the struggles of the emergency responses. Despite the road construction during the war, there were still countless remote villages built into the mountains that were no match for earthquakes or heavy rains.
I’ve seen similar situations around the world. The outskirts of Lima, Peru, are the same—informal construction climbing the barren peaks. In the jungles of western Colombia, I toured villages where people had slapped together huts on stilts in the hillsides that the Big Bad Wolf, let alone a strong storm or mild earthquake—there are multiple tectonic plates and seismic zones on those areas—would have quickly destroyed.
Governments in many places are powerless to prevent informal construction. And governments in many places are unable or unwilling to maintain infrastructure that could minimize the damage of a geological or meteorological event and facilitate rescue and recovery.
Case in point: Morocco. The 6.8 earthquake in the Atlas Mountains has killed nearly 3,000 people. The epicenter was in a remote area that according to Washington Post reporting has not seen a lot of seismic activity. Thus, the construction was not designed to withstand the event—although given the economic conditions in the rural mountain area, it’s doubtful people had the resources to build seismic-resistant structures.
According to aid organizations, the earthquake damaged roadways and created landslide risks, slowing the response effort.
Morocco’s cities like Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangiers are better constructed to withstand the seismic forces that frequently shake the country, but the quake outside Marrakesh was one of the most powerful in the country’s recent history, leading to the extensive damage and death toll.
In addition to earthquakes, Morocco also experiences periodic flooding, as I witnessed in 2008. I was on a reporting tripin October that year and after a few days in Casablanca and Rabat was to head to Tangier in the north. However, severe rains and flooding around Tangier shut down rail travel for several days, and when I finally made it to Tangiers, the city was still cleaning up the damage.
As Morocco continues its earthquake recovery efforts, Libya is dealing with a far greater crisis in the aftermath of the flooding caused by Storm Daniel, that also caused flooding in Greece and the Balkans.
But the damage in Libya, particularly the eastern coastal city of Derna, is a tragedy of unique proportions. Although it was an uncontrollable weather event that was the immediate cause, decades of human failure compounded the disaster.
The country’s infrastructure was in poor shape during Gaddafi’s rule and has only deteriorated since the 2011 civil war that ousted his regime and ushered in years of civil war between factions claiming power since.
I have to note that the post-Gaddafi civil war and political instability was entirely predictable. When I was producing NPR’s coverage of the fall of Tripoli and the end of the Gaddafi regime in August through November 2011, it was painfully obvious that the various militias that had generally banded together to fight the regime loyalists were going to splinter and fight for their “share” of the new order.
There were thousands and thousands of young, amped up, heavily armed men who believed their tribe or city or militia had done more in the war than others, and therefore they should have a bigger slice of the pie. After Gaddafi fell, the National Transitional Council, that had been the government in waiting and had western backing, could not hold the center and gain the critically important “monopoly of violence” in the country.
It all broke down and today the country remains divided between two would-be governments and unstable. Simply put, the international community didn’t prepare for or make the right investments to help secure the peace after the fall of Gaddafi.
That’s one of the reasons the recent flood in the eastern city of Derna was so devastating. The two dams that crumbled under the weight of Storm Daniel were in disrepair. The government based in Benghazi has spent more time battling the government of Tripoli than investing in services and governance for the people of Libya.
Engineers have argued that proper maintenance and then proper management during the storm could have avoided the breeches that led to a disaster that seemed like something out of a movie.
What happened in Derna was similar to the Maui fire in that danger came rushing toward a coastal town with little warning and with few options for residents of the city of approximately 120,000. Buildings, houses, and people were utterly powerless against the flow of water that surged through and wiped out as much as a quarter of the city.
Then, there’s the response. Again, poor governance and investment in emergency equipment and capabilities led to a slow and inadequate response. Derna’s location is also a complicating factor. As you can see on the map, it’s isolated on the Libyan coast. There is one small highway that runs along the coast, and the closest major city with an airport and any significant infrastructure is Benghazi, a six-to-seven-hour drive. There is a smaller airport in Tobrouk to the east, which is about a four-hour drive.
In 2011, I traveled by car from Egypt to Benghazi. The route passed through Tobrouk on the coast and then cut inland south of Derna. It is remote, dessert terrain. There were scattered small villages and minimal infrastructure. Bottom line, there isn’t much to work with in the area, so any major response operation means bringing in people and equipment from outside the region and that has been part of why the disaster response was so slow and inadequate.
It's going to take years for Derna to recover, and in the meantime, the city remains vulnerable. Libya built the dams in the 1970s to control the river that had flooded the city several times before and the devastated city is again at the mercy of the forces of nature and the river.
If you are in the College Park, Maryland, area, please join me on Sept. 21 at 4pm for my talk at the University of Maryland, hosted by the UMD chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
If you are in Massachusetts, join me at Wellesley Books on Sept. 25.
Also, I’m going through more of the outtakes and deleted scenes from Passport Stamps and will be posting more of that in the weeks ahead. I have bits from Lebanon, Syria, and Libya coming soon.