x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Severe storms paralyse Middle East

Worst weather in a decade kills 11 and brings floods, blizzards and chaos to region more accustomed to warmer temperatures.

The streets of Amman, Jordan. The worst storms in a decade have left swathes of Israel and Jordan under a blanket of snow and parts of Lebanon blacked out.
The streets of Amman, Jordan. The worst storms in a decade have left swathes of Israel and Jordan under a blanket of snow and parts of Lebanon blacked out.

BEIRUT // The worst storms in a decade left swathes of the Palestinian territories and Jordan under a blanket of snow and parts of Lebanon blacked out yesterday, bringing misery to a region accustomed to warmer temperatures.

Freezing temperatures and floods across the region have claimed at least 11 lives since Sunday and exacerbated the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees huddled in tented camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

One expert at Beirut's airport said that this weather system, which originated in Russia, was the worst ever to have hit Lebanon.

The United Nations yesterday appealed for urgent aid to help Syrians in the Zaatari refugee camp.

"The next 72 hours will be a critical test of our ability to meet the basic needs of children and their families at Zaatari" refugee camp in the desert near the Syrian border, said Unicef's Jordan representative, Dominique Hyde.

The camp, home to more than 62,000 Syrian refugees, was almost entirely inundated by water on Wednesday. Heavy wind and rains knocked down at least 500 tents, which normally house five people.

In Jerusalem at least 15 to 20 centimetres of snow had fallen by yesterday morning.

During the height of the snowfall, buses were cancelled, but services gradually resumed as the storm tapered off and the sun returned.

City officials asked residents to avoid driving and to use public transport. Across the holy city, which lies at an altitude of 800 metres, schools were closed for the day, with thousands of children - and no shortage of adults - taking to the streets to play in the snow.

"Look at our snowman," Manar Barhoum shouted in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Safafa, pointing at a 1.2-metre effort, complete with a carrot nose and eyes made of cucumber slices.

"It's a salad snowman," her mother Miriam said.

In the northern West Bank village of Qusra, 48-year-old Abdelhamid Qusrawi, said: "In 1991 we had more snow, but in the past 10 years, this is the most that we've seen."

Authorities ordered schools and universities to shut across the region, including in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

In Jordan, a blizzard brought the country to a near halt, as snow blocked most of roads in Amman and other parts in the desert kingdom, police said.

Jordan's King Abdullah II ordered the army to support the government, which declared yesterday a public holiday, in opening roads and helping those stranded in the snow, the palace said.

The storm has also triggered blackouts in Lebanon and Jordan.

"Our boiler works with electricity, so of course we have no hot water," said Elsa, a housekeeper living in Beirut, adding that her family has been struggling to find ways to keep warm.

At least 11 people have reportedly been killed in the region, including a man who froze to death after he fell asleep drunk in his car in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley and a baby swept away in a flash flood in the centre of the country.

In the Palestinian territories, officials reported five fatalities since Tuesday, one of them a woman in the southern West Bank village of Jabaa who died from a fire she started in her home to keep warm.

A Gaza official also said a Palestinian man was electrocuted after being struck by a power cable snapped loose by ferocious winds.

Shraf Al Kidra said that the 24-year-old died on Wednesday in the accident, which injured four other people.

The storm also took a heavy toll on regional economies.

Three days of rain and strong winds that struck Egypt hit activity, including in most ports, with the commercial harbour in Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea worst affected, officials said.

Snow was even seen capping the north-west Tabuk region of Saudi Arabia, where roads leading to Mount Alluz were packed with motorists excited at the sight of snow.

The severe weather extended beyond the Middle East. The Turkish government issued warnings about natural gas leaks as people try to heat their homes. Gas leaks have killed eight people in the country this past week.

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters