At least six people were feared dead on Friday with heavy rain and strong winds lashing Salalah in southern Oman as Cyclone Mekunu approached after causing devastation on Yemen's Socotra island.
Yemeni officials said at least 40 people — including Yemeni, Indian and Sudanese citizens — were missing on Socotra. Flash floods washed away thousands of animals and cut electricity and communication lines on the island.
Meteorologists warned that Mekunu was gaining strength and would be "extremely severe" when it crashes into the mainland Arabian Peninsula.
The cyclone is expected to make landfall early Saturday near Salalah, Oman's third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people.
India's Meteorological Department said the storm in the Arabian Sea was packing maximum sustained winds of 160-170 kilometres per hour, with gusts of up to 180kph.
On Socotra, more than 230 families were moved to shelter in sturdier buildings and other areas, including those more inland and in the island's mountains, Yemeni security officials said on Friday.
Flash floods engulfed Socotra streets, washed away thousands of animals and cut electricity and communication lines, they said. Some humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived on the island just hours after the cyclone receded.
Yemen's self-exiled President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi ordered troops under his command on the island to help citizens, deliver supplies and reopen roads.
The officials told Associated Press that heavy rains were now pummelling Yemen's easternmost province of Al Mahra, on the border with Oman.
Socotra officials had earlier reported 17 missing on Thursday after one ship sank and two others ran aground in the storm. Governor Ramzy Mahrous said later: "We consider them dead."
Socotra has a unique ecosystem and is home to rare plants, snails and reptiles that can be found nowhere else on the planet. It is known for its flower-and-fruit bearing dragon blood tree, which resembles an umbrella and gets its name from the dark red sap it secretes.
Salalah, the hometown of Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos, already began sandbagging low-lying doors and warning residents not to go into valleys for fears of flashing flooding.
Social media videos showed flooded streets and powerful winds ripping water tanks from rooftops and dragging cars. Residents in Salalah said people have been injured from flying objects.
“There are people who are trying to video the storm from the streets. I saw this man from my window being hit by a falling tree branch. He was okay in the end but you can see how stupid some people are,” Kareem Al Yafai, a resident from Salalah told The National over the telephone.
Oman sent rescue helicopters to remote villages in its Dhofar governorate to evacuate those who could be affected by flooding or mudslides. It also evacuated the critically ill from Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah, flying them north to Muscat.
The port of Salalah said it also had taken precautions and secured cranes ahead of the cyclone.
Streets quickly emptied across the city. Standing water covered some roads and caused at least one car to hydroplane and overturn. A sizeable police presence fanned out, many in Royal Oman Police SUVs with chicken wire over the windows.
As torrential rains poured down, authorities opened up schools to shelter those whose homes are at risk. About 600 people, mostly labourers, huddled at the West Salalah School, some sleeping on mattresses on the floors of classrooms.
Shahid Kazmi, a worker from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, said police had moved him and others to the school. "Inshallah, we are safe here," he said.
Seasonal rains are not unusual for southern Oman this time of year. While the rest of the Arabian Peninsula bakes in areas where temperatures near 50°C, those in Salalah enjoy rainy weather that sees fog and cool air wrap around its lush mountainsides. Temperatures drop down to about 25°C during its annual monsoon festival.
Powerful cyclones, however, are rare. Over a roughly 100-year period ending in 1996, only 17 recorded cyclones struck Oman. In 2007, Cyclone Gonu tore through the sultanate and reached as far as Iran, causing US$4 billion in damage in Oman alone and killing over 70 people across the Middle East.
The last hurricane-strength storm to strike within 160 kilometers of Salalah came in May 1959, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's archives. However, that cyclone was categorized as a Category 1 cyclone, meaning it only had winds of up to 152 kph.