Worst storms in decade bring parts of the Middle East to near standstill
The worst storms in a decade left swathes of Israel and Jordan under a blanket of snow and parts of Lebanon blacked out on Thursday, bringing misery to a region accustomed to temperate climates.
Freezing temperatures and floods since Sunday across the region have claimed at least 11 lives and exacerbated the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees huddled in tented camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
But for students in countries battered by the snow, rain and bitter winds, the storms meant they could cut classes as authorities ordered schools and universities closed in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan Israel.
With snow blanketing the war-hit Syrian capital Damascus, the education ministry Thursday announced that mid-term exams would be postponed in the country until further notice due to “the prevailing weather conditions.”
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 Thursday a public holiday, in opening roads and helping those stranded in the snow, the palace said.
The storm has also triggered power blackouts in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
In Lebanon parts of the country were plunged into darkness, leaving those who rely on electricity to heat their homes shivering.
Officials and residents blamed the outage on the storm and an open-ended strike by employees of the state-run Electricite du Liban power company over salaries and pension issues.
“There is a storm, and there is a problem in the grid. The electricity workers are on strike, and they’re not letting anyone fix the problem,” Lebanese Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil told AFP on Thursday.
Residents of several Beirut districts and in snow-capped mountain areas reported via social network sites that the blackout began on Wednesday night affecting electrical supply, heating and hot water boilers.
“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.
The storm also highlighted the poor infrastructure in Lebanon where chronic power shortages since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war have been a main source of grievance among Lebanese who must put up with daily rationing.
A Beirut international airport weather expert said the storm is the worst ever to have hit Lebanon while other met officials in the region said it was the worst in 10 years.
Media reports said the cold weather originated in Russia, with one daily dubbing the storm “Olga”.
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 four 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.
The storm also took a heavy toll on regional economies.
The Manufacturers Association of Israel said the storm was set to cost the country’s industry at least about 300 million shekels ($80 million/60 million euros) in damages, most of it due to flooding.
Three days of driving rains and strong winds that struck normally warm Egypt paralysed 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 northwestern Tabuk region of the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where roads leading to Mount Alluz were packed with motorists excited at the sight of rare snow.
But for children across the region, including in Holy City of Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah, the snow was a godsend which saw youngsters — and no shortage of adults — rush outside to make snowmen and enjoy snowball fights.