The Malta Independent 25 September 2023, Monday
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Noel Grima Sunday, 17 September 2023, 07:40 Last update: about 9 days ago

It was coming our way but in the last moment it veered off. The people of Derna, a seaside town near Benghazi, got the brunt. What followed was Apocalypse.

As I write, we are nowhere near knowing how many have died. The rescuers speak of streets full of dead while many more were swept out to sea by a tidal wave as high as three storeys.

The rainstorm was an exceptionally fierce one but the reports now coming in say most of the deaths could have been avoided. That is the real Apocalypse of Derna.

Likewise the earthquake that took place in Morocco just a few days earlier was an exceptionally fierce one but we might find out that some or many of the deaths could have been avoided had proper building regulations been followed. The Japanese, who get frequent earthquakes, have learned to minimise deaths and damages through proper building regulations and strict enforcement.

We might have forgotten the equally terrible earthquake in Turkey some months ago but again it seems lax enforcement of building regulations may have contributed to most of the deaths.

Back to the unfortunate Derna. The tidal wave which swept through the Wadi or valley that passes through the town was sparked off by the collapse of the dam. This was old and its maintenance had been neglected in the civil war, despite warnings.

Then the tidal wave, gathering volume and force, continued on its way until it hit a second dam, nearer the town centre and broke it down too.

The town was simply not prepared and no evacuation was carried out. On the contrary, the authorities told people to stay indoors. This might have been the right advice to give but in actual fact, when the tidal wave arrived, it swept entire buildings down to the sea. And obviously all cars it met on the way.

Every country must learn to be prepared because we will be having more and more examples of extreme weather. A functioning country must draw up contingency plans and the people must be taught to react in an orderly manner and to follow the authorities’ orders. (And these orders must make sense).

One thing that surely must have made things much worse is the state of the country after so many years of civil war, anarchy and mayhem.

In other words, a natural catastrophe can be made far worse by human factors or the absence of them.

Other countries have had to learn the hard way, such as America after Katrina.

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