MUSCAT, OMAN // Two people died and thousands were forced to flee their homes as Cyclone Phet battered the Omani coast yesterday. Rescue helicopters battled heavy rain and winds that peaked at 138kph as they hauled people from flowing wadis and roofs in the worst-hit towns. Phet's first confirmed casualties were an Omani man who died trying to cross a flooded area in Yanqul in the northern Al Dhahira region and a Bangladeshi woman who was electrocuted in Qurayyat village near Muscat, state television said. Witnesses expected the death toll to be higher as some people reported relatives missing.
About 4,000 people have been evacuated from the eastern region since Wednesday, when the cyclone was at Category Five. It was downgraded to a Category One tropical storm with winds averaging 120kph after making landfall yesterday morning. Phet is the second-strongest recorded storm in the Arabian Sea, behind the Category Five Cyclone Gonu of 2007, which killed at least 32 people in Oman. The United Nations' top official on natural disasters described the cyclone as "serious but not catastrophic" and pledged that the world body would assist officials in the Emirates and Oman if called upon.
"We are following the evolution of Cyclone Phet very closely," said Sir John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator. "We are willing to help with international assistance if that is asked for and needed. We know where it is going to go next and we have the right early warning and contingency plans in place." Saleh al Hadidi, a rescue volunteer in the east, said: "Houses are surrounded by water about a couple metres high and we have residents pulled out from the roofs with a hoist from helicopters." Building equipment was used to evacuate workers trapped by water in a labour camp, he added.
Conditions were so severe that rescue helicopters were unable to reach stranded people in eastern areas including Ashkharah, Ras al Hadd and Masirah, according to Malik bin Suleiman al Maamary, the inspector general of police and customs. "Rescue operations are being hampered by poor visibility and strong winds," he told Omani television, which reported that hundreds of houses in the east had been damaged.
A resident said most eastern region residents either could not reach pick-up points or did not want to be evacuated. "The population is too big to be moved," said Ahmed Hamood Alawi, a 42-year-old civil servant. Farhad Muallad, who lives in Muscat, said: "My neighbour said his brother is not responding on his mobile. He left for the weekend to camp in Jabal Shams. Also, some labourers say their friends are missing after they went to recover their belongings in the wadis."
When asked about damage, a civil defence spokesman replied: "It is too premature to talk about monetary loss. It is the casualties we should worry about." Oil exports from Oman were halted as the rough sea prevented tankers from docking in Muscat. The latest storm path forecast showed Phet downgrading to a tropical storm before it hits the Pakistani coastline, near Karachi. * Additional reporting by James Reinl and Reuters