Saturday, January 1, 2011

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?


You don't realize how much you miss it until you live somewhere where it almost never rains.

In Jeddah, rain now is synonymous with death, destruction, and frustration and causes widespread panic.  In November 2009, floods devastated the city, killing more than 120 and stranding thousands.  The government was slow to react, but the people of Jeddah filled that void with a volunteer effort that has birthed an entire movement here and throughout Saudi Arabia.  I've met lots of volunteers, and every conversation references the floods of 2009.  The tragedy was something of a turning point, and it's quite amazing to see what has come out of such a dark period.

Last Wednesday, I watched from my office as the sky darkened.  Distant rumblings of thunder grew closer.  And then, all of a sudden, down came the rain.  This wasn't the five minutes of a few droplets we had a few weeks ago.  This was a true downpour and thunderstorm.  My colleagues and I were giddy, rushing to the windows and doors to feel the rain and take pictures.

Within a few minutes, though, the flat landscape became waterlogged.  One of our entrances was blocked by flooding.  Parents started receiving calls that schools were closing.  The traffic sounds became more frantic, and more people got on the roads to try and get home.  We received word of leaks in our events hall and had to cancel an afternoon event.  In the excitement, a colleague and I decided to go out for lunch.  We drove, as we thought we'd go a bit farther afield.  We ended up literally across the street; the streets were flooded and jammed, and it was easier to stay close.  In some places it was just a couple inches of water on the road, but there were people wading through with water up to their mid-calf.  After just 30 minutes of rain. 

Getting back to work was a nightmare.  It took us 80 minutes.  I heard similar stories from other colleagues who ventured out.  It's all relative.  In Thailand, during monsoon season, the roads occasionally flooded up to the car doors, but we always kept driving.  While people canoed past us.  But here, with rain barely over the bottom rim of the tire, the panic and phobia caused massive traffic jams. 

Driving home several hours later was better, but the roads were still saturated.  And with predictions of another storm with up to an inch of precipitation the next day, people were visibly shaken.  Parking lots had turned into lakes.  Side streets were canals.  Swimming pools were now filled with brown water. 

Things were better by the time we went out to dinner that night.  But people still seemed freaked.  As I walked home from the shuttle stop, lightning flashed in the distance.

I woke up on Thursday to winds lashing my windows.  I opened the curtains to see driving rain and another thunderstorm.  I settled in for a gray day at home.  The rain didn't last as long as predicted, and it cleared up by mid-afternoon.  I ventured out after the last prayer Thursday night to try to pay my internet bill.  The first two branches were closed, presumably due to weather.  The third was open, but packed.  The roads were still flooded, impassable in some places.  Cars were stuck in a number of places.  It was quite a sight.  Even after a full day of dry weather, the roads didn't drain all that much, as I noted Friday night.  Last night, while at the Consulate, I passed by Hattie's burial site.  I was a little worried it would be flooded, but luckily it is on slightly higher ground. 

One local news outlet, Arab News, has a couple of good reads in English, complete with pictures here and here.  There's also an interesting editorial here

Luckily I don't have the same worries about flooding that most of the city's residents have, but I sympathize with their plight after seeing how bad things could get only after just a little rain.  Definitely a cultural learning experience...


Connie said...

These areas definitely are not built to handle rain! Amman had serious rains in 2009 as well. I remember driving through pouring rain and hail, through streets covered in water several inches deep, with grand 'creeks' rushing down hills in bubbling waterfalls. Impressive for the desert, but compared to tropical rains... it was a just a typical afternoon downpour!

Sara said...

That's so crazy and different from here. We had a little tiny flood our first week in Costa Rica, but once the drainage was fixed outside we were dry inside throughout the whole rainy season including some really crazy storms. The person here from CDC was pushed out of her house by a mud slide after a storm. I'm so happy nothing happened to us! I hope it doesn't get worse for you guys.