Fierce winter weather batters Middle East, killing 8
Syrian refugees carry their belongings at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. (AP / Mohammad Hannon)
Jamal Halaby And Barbara Surk, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013 9:33AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 9, 2013 5:52PM EST
AMMAN, Jordan -- The fiercest winter storm to hit the Mideast in years brought a rare foot of snow to Jordan on Wednesday, caused fatal accidents in Lebanon and the West Bank, and disrupted traffic on the Suez Canal in Egypt. At least eight people died across the region.
In Lebanon, the Red Cross said storm-related accidents killed six people over the past two days. Several drowned after slipping into rivers from flooded roads, one person froze to death and another died after his car went off a slippery road, according to George Kettaneh, Operations Director for the Lebanese Red Cross.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a Palestinian official said two West Bank women drowned after their car was caught in a flash flood on Tuesday. Nablus Deputy Governor Annan Atirah said the women abandoned their vehicle after it got stuck on a flooded road, and their bodies were apparently swept away by surging waters. Their driver was hospitalized in critical condition.
In the Gaza Strip, civil defence spokesman Mohammed al-Haj Yousef said storms cut electricity to thousands of Palestinian homes and rescuers were sent to evacuate dozens of people.
Parts of Israel were bracing for snow a day after the military was forced to send helicopters and rubber dinghies to rescue residents stranded by floodwaters. In Jerusalem, streets were mostly empty as light snow began to stick Wednesday night. School was cancelled for the next day because of the weather, which Israeli meteorologists said was the stormiest in a decade.
The unusual weather over the past few days hit vulnerable Syrian refugees living in tent camps very hard, particularly some 50,000 sheltering in the Zaatari camp in Jordan's northern desert. Torrential rains over four days have flooded some 200 tents and forced women and infants to evacuate in temperatures that dipped below freezing at night, whipping wind and lashing rain.
"It's been freezing cold and constant rain for the past four days," lamented Ahmad Tobara, 44, who evacuated his tent when its shafts submerged in flood water in Zaatari. A camp spokesman said that by Wednesday, some 1,500 refugees had been displaced within the camp and were now living in mobile homes normally used for schools.
Weather officials said winds exceeded 45 miles (70 kilometres) per hour and the rain left two feet (70 centimetres) of water on the streets.
The storm dumped at least a foot of snow on many parts of Jordan and was accompanied by lashing wind, lightning and thunder. It shut schools, stranded motorists and delayed international flights, Jordanian weatherman Mohammed Samawi said. The unusually heavy snowfall blocked streets in the capital Amman and isolated remote villages, prompting warnings from authorities for people to stay home as snow plows tried to reopen clogged roads. It forced at least 400 families to evacuate their homes and move to government shelters overnight.
Samawi called it the "fiercest storm to hit the Mideast in the month of January in at least 30 years."
The snowstorm followed four days of torrential rain, which caused flooding in many areas across the country.
In Lebanon, several days of winds and heavy rain along the coast and record snow in the mountains caused power outages across the country, blocked traffic and shut down mountain passes. Later Wednesday, snow is forecast at altitudes higher than 200 yards (meters), while rain that has already flooded suburbs of the capital, Beirut, should continue.
In Egypt, rare downpours, strong winds and low visibility disrupted Suez Canal operations over the past three days and also led to the closure of several ports. The number of ships moving through the Suez Canal had fallen by half because of poor visibility, the official MENA news agency reported. A canal official said that by Wednesday, operations had returned to normal. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
MENA also reported that ports in the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Dakhila were shut down, while cities in the Nile Delta suffered power outages and fishing stopped in cities like Damietta, northeast of Cairo.
MENA also reported 10 fishermen went missing after their boat capsized near Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean.
In Syria, where a civil war is raging, snow was piling up in and around the capital, Damascus. Officials said many villages in central Homs province and along the southern border with Israel have been cut off after heavy snowfall. Torrential rains are expected over the next three days with temperatures around freezing. Some 2.5 million people within Syria have been displaced in fighting that has stretched on for nearly two years now.