SALALAH, Oman – Cyclone Mekunu roared over the Yemeni island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea on its way to Oman on Thursday, sending torrents of water rushing down streets and sinking at least two ships. At least 17 people were reported missing in the powerful storm.
Indian meteorologists expected the “very severe” cyclone to strike Oman on Saturday near Salalah, the sultanate’s third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people near the country’s border with Yemen.
Mekunu’s sustained winds reached 96 mph, with gusts reaching 109 mph, India said.
Yemen’s pro-government SABA news agency reported that 17 people were missing after two ships capsized in the storm and three vehicles washed away. It said Yemen’s government, exiled in Saudi Arabia, had declared Socotra a “disaster” zone after the storm.
Soaking wet residents attempted to find shelter from the storm, which brought heavy rain, flooding and mudslides.
Mohammed al-Arqabi, a resident of the island who works as a local journalist, described the situation as “very bad,” saying “the water level has greatly increased, and floods are everywhere … washing away cars.”
“More than 200 families have been displaced from their homes in the suburbs of Hadibu and areas close to the northern coast,” he said. “Two Indian cargo ships have gone missing, losing five of their crew members.”
Rajeh Bady, a spokesman for Yemen’s exiled government, said the island was in need of “urgent” aid, according to SABA.
The island, listed by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site, has been the focus of a dispute between the United Arab Emirates and Yemen’s internationally recognized government amid that country’s war after Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
Saudi troops recently deployed on Socotra as a confidence-building measure over complaints by Yemen’s government that the UAE deployed troops there without its permission.
Socotra has a unique ecosystem and is home to rare species of plants, land snail and reptile species that can be found nowhere else around 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.
A cyclone is the same as a hurricane or a typhoon; their names only change because of their location. Hurricanes are spawned east of the international date line. Typhoons develop west of the line. They are known as cyclones in the Indian Ocean and Australia.
Seasonal rains are nothing unusual for southern Oman this time of year. While the rest of the Arabian Peninsula bakes in areas where temperatures near 122 degrees Fahrenheit, those in the sleepy port city of Salalah enjoy rainy weather that sees fog and cool air wrap around its lush mountainsides. Temperatures drop down around 77 degrees Fahrenheit 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 later even reached Iran, causing $4 billion in damage in Oman alone and killing over 70 people across the Mideast.
The last hurricane-strength storm to strike within 100 miles of Salalah came in May 1959, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s archives. However, that cyclone was categorized as a Category 1 hurricane, meaning it only had winds of up to 95 mph.
Mekunu, which means “mullet” in Dhivehi, the language spoken in the Maldives, is on track to potentially be a Category 2 hurricane. It also comes just days after Cyclone Sagar struck Somalia.
Late Thursday night, all was quiet in Salalah, the hometown of Oman’s longtime ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The Royal Oman Police earlier urged citizens to seek safety and warned that floods were likely in valleys. It also said it planned to deploy more ambulances and police officers to areas likely to be affected by the cyclone.
Also, the Health Ministry said it evacuated critically ill patients at locations of the Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah, flying them by air north to Muscat, the country’s capital. State television aired images of others being evacuated from remote villages in the path of the cyclone.
The port of Salalah, crucial to Qatar amid a boycott by four Arab nations over a diplomatic spat with Doha, said it also had taken precautions and secured cranes ahead of the cyclone.
Tourists rushed to catch the last flights out before Salalah International Airport closed at midnight Thursday for the storm, where sandbags already stacked against some doors. However, other tourists ignored the warnings and came in anyway.
Among them were Sarah White, 29, of Nelson, New Zealand, and John Stones, 27, of Liverpool, England. They said they travel as much as they can no matter the obstacle, noting a trip to Bali that included an erupting volcano.
“I definitely don’t let me let anything stop me,” White said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
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