Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall: Flood Redux Recap

I read/heard one time that most Foreign Service evacuations happen in places where there was no hint of unrest or problems. You only have to look at Tunisia and Egypt right now to see how quickly things can escalate from 0 to really bad. (Lebanon has a little more context, but that doesn't make things any less difficult.) I think this factoid is sticking in my mind because the last 36 hours have been entirely unexpected. And while I am now safe, dry, at home, and with electricity and water, I may well be among the minority in Jeddah. Here's what's happened.

On November 25, 2009, Jeddah received 90mm of rain in four hours. This unprecedented precipitation caused at least 123 deaths, destroyed thousands of buildings, and left even more residents homeless and/or stranded. The aftermath of these floods have shaped civil society in Jeddah, and perhaps even in all of KSA, for the past 14 months. I've talked about this before, but it's worth repeating now. The 2009 floods are part of Jeddawi consciousness and are not for a moment forgotten. There were calls to punish the negligent contractors and builders, to implement infrastructure upgrades, to guard against this tragedy ever happening again. I can't speak as to how much happened to improve things in those 14 months. I can only say that it wasn't enough.

On Tuesday, I woke up to pouring rain. A novelty. But we've had a few rainstorms this winter, as I've discussed. It rained hard for several hours, and the streets were a bit of a mess. Then it stopped.

On Wednesday, I woke up to pouring rain. It started before 7am. It abated slightly a couple of times, but there was significant downpour until about 3pm. Lately the city has been panicking with only a little rain. So far, if you've waited until the rains stop and then a couple hours later, the roads are passable. But this time, the rain just didn't stop. If we had a window to get home, looking back, it was early in the morning.

From my office window, I once again watched the compound become a lake. At first my most pressing concern was what our staff would eat for lunch, as we'd planned to go out (a rare occurrence). Motor pool essentially stopped operating except for dire emergencies before noon. Staff were advised to stay put, but were told they could take unscheduled leave if they felt they needed to go home.

Parts of the Chancery began flooding; FM did a good job with wet vacs and mops to staunch the flows and keep things running. All the compound's cats, victims of a recent management notice against feeding them, huddled on the front steps to try to stay dry.

Our plans to head to Medina after work, en route to Madain Saleh, started looking grim. Reports started coming in that roads were full of water and cars.

One of my staff left around 1pm to go pick his daughter up at the university. When we spoke with him two hours later, he was not far away and stuck in a parking lot, as the roads were impassable. He told us that there were submerged cars in some areas, the traffic was beyond unmanageable, and that underpasses were completely filled with water. He was staying put for the time being. (He left his car a few hours later and walked home, through waist-high water, which took several hours.)

Another colleague got word that her home had water leaking in. She advised her family to turn off the electricity and stay dry. We outfitted her in rain gear, including plastic bags over her feet, and she prepared to make the 20 minute walk home. Only a few minutes later she returned. She got to the sidewalk outside the compound but couldn't navigate the knee-high waters. She said it was horrific out there. (She attempted it later on and was able to make it home after getting a lift through the major intersection.)

The husband of a colleague left work in a less-affected part of town to get home. The 20 minute drive (on a normal day) took 3.5 hours. He was among the lucky ones.

Rumors starting flying in. A dam in the east had breached. Flash flooding. A fire at one of the malls caused by wet electric circuits. Major roads were being closed. Helicopter rescues were underway. People stopped outside hotels/furnished apartment buildings who got frustrated and rented rooms. (All true, it turns out.) Civil Defense issued a warning telling everyone to stay at home or stay put.

About 5pm there was a meeting to discuss next steps for Consulate employees. My colleagues and I scoured the web for news and were horrified by the few images/videos we found. Cars floating away down major roads. People walking through waist-deep waters. Submerged cars. We were only half surprised when we were told we'd be spending the night at the Consulate.

About this time I was really kicking myself for not bringing my suitcase for the expected trip in to work. That would have made things much more palatable.

Between the CGR, MSG house, and our employee association, we had enough food, and a makeshift but ample dinner was prepared. We all gathered in the Marine House to eat and socialize, roughly half the employees of the Consulate and assorted stranded others. The major cell networks were only slightly functioning, so calls to assess the whereabouts of colleagues, friends, and families were dropped or wouldn't go through. I was trying to track a few people and just couldn't get through.

The Warehouse team did a phenomenal job distributing mattresses and bedding. Most of the ladies bunked in the (unoccupied) Ambassador's house. We laughed, saying the representational area looked like it was turned into an orphanage. The few on-compound residents opened their homes. Men bunked at the Marine House. Some slept in offices or on couches. Even though it wasn't pleasant to spend 24 hours in work clothes and not brush my teeth or shower, I feel very fortunate to have been dry, fed, and sleeping on an actual mattress.

I didn't fall asleep until after 2:30am, but I slept for about 4 hours. At 7, we got the call to quickly grab all our stuff and head out to shuttles. They sent the first group of us out in a convoy of six vehicles, all high-clearance. Amazingly, we were home in 45 minutes. It wasn't easy going, but we were among the few vehicles on the road. Hundreds, even thousands, of abandoned cars lined every available street and lot. There was a lot of winding around; we didn't make it to a major road for 30 minutes.

Most of the flood waters in our area had receded. But not completely. You could see marks on cars that had been partially or completely submerged. Damage was evident; you could tell some had been carried by the waters to where they now were parked. Some areas still had submerged vehicles. We heard that two cars had tried to leave the night before. After 3-4 hours of circling the Consulate and being unable to get more than a street or two away, they returned.

I spoke to one of my neighbors once I got home. She had been at home all of yesterday, and she had no idea how bad things were. Our housing compound and neighborhood was spared most of the worst of things. I got home, hugged my cats, showered, brushed my teeth, put on clean pajamas, and fell into bed. The cell network was still down, so I couldn't reach colleagues/friends to see how they'd weathered the storm. I reached several later this afternoon, and everyone is home and safe. But the stories are pretty horrific. Escaping cars just in time to see them wash away. Joining throngs of stranded people to wade miles through waist-deep water. Huddling in whatever dry space they could find. 24 hour journeys. Again, I'm one of the extremely lucky ones.

I posted some links in a previous post. There's not a whole lot more information available. At least four confirmed deaths; I imagine that number will rise. I hear that helicopter and boat rescues are still ongoing. Roads are still closed. The low-lying South and East areas of Jeddah - also home to the city's poorest residents - are hardest hit. Again.

I just read that primary schools will be closed for two weeks. Not a bad idea. Intermediate and high schools will close Saturday. There are calls for a return to normal by Saturday, but I'm skeptical. We'll see.

Please keep Jeddah in your thoughts in the coming hours and days. We have yet to see the extent of the damage. I am among the lucky ones. seems to have the most comprehensive coverage if you're interested.

One thing's for sure: I will be packing a bag of clothes, toiletries, and necessities to keep at the office.

Updates to come...

Change of Plans

So Madain Saleh didn't happen this weekend. Instead, record and destructive rainfall happened. The 111mm in 3 hours surpassed the 90mm in 4 hours tally of 11/25/09, the date of the deadly Jeddah floods. And it didn't just rain for 3 hours. It rained for 9. After raining for 3+ the day before. needless to say the city is flooded and in a state of emergency.

Jeddah is in bad shape. we ended up spending the night at the Consulate - there was no choice. I'm home safe now, as are most if not all of my colleagues, thank goodness. but things are bad. I'm worried about the thousands of people who are in the lowest-lying and hardest-hit areas.

I will blog about it later, but I need some sleep and relaxation first. for the time being, see photos/videos here: Or

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Al Baha

This week I am lucky to have two trips inside Saudi Arabia scheduled - one for work, and one for fun. For fun, I'm joining a group of colleagues for a weekend trip to Madain Saleh - Saudi's version of Petra. More on that after Friday.

For work, I joined our Consul General on his first official visit to this small but mighty province. Al Baha is KSA's smallest province but with an estimated population larger than some Gulf states. (*cough* Bahrain.) It's a 5 hour drive (or 30 minute flight) from Jeddah. We flew; I'd like to have driven. Al Baha is geographically and climatically very different than the rest of the country - it's mountainous and has changing seasons and varied weather. On our short trip, we saw the famed fog - so thick you could barely see a car's brake lights in front of you - as well as a clear, but chilly, day. I thoroughly enjoyed the brisk weather (it probably only got down to about 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit), but everyone was decked out in winter weather gear. Most of the men had on winter jackets over their thobes, while a few sported floor-length fleece/fur overthobes (my own made up word).

The views on a clear day are absolutely spectacular. I've included a few in a photo collage here. We went up to a panoramic lookout point in Raghodan Forest, but, unfortunately, we went on the foggy day. So I missed out on the really great views. But what we saw was pretty awesome anyway! There's considerably more vegetation in Al-Baha than in most of KSA - some low, scrubby bushes/trees but also taller, conifer-like ones. I heard of olive tree farms nearby, and the honey from Al Baha is famous. We didn't go anywhere that sold either, unfortunately.

Al Baha tends to be a conservative area, but I had no problems as the only female member of the delegation. In fact, I was the only one who got to see women at all! Seriously, we did not see a single woman in the streets, in cars, in shops, in the hotel, at the university, anywhere. I have heard that's not uncommon in some parts of the country, but I had yet to experience it. I visited with a group of women at the Literary Club and was treated to the most adorable performance of a welcome song, in English, by some local schoolgirls. I gave them certificates and took pictures with them afterward (none on my camera, sadly) - it was great. The women were impressed/amused by my Arabic and kept giving me things to read (slowly). I had a great time with them, and they gave me two bouquets of flowers (see below photo). I had a wonderful time.

Perhaps the best part of Al Baha, for me, was the baboons. Those who know me know that I am an animal lover. My (two) move(s) to South Africa were based at least partly on the existence of penguins and elephants. Ditto Thailand on the elephants. I could spend weeks, even months, at a time on safari. I desperately miss wildlife living in Jeddah, so the baboons were a welcome change. They appeared at the hotel in the morning to scavenge for food. Unlike those I encountered in South Africa, these baboons were fairly small and not socialized at all - both good things! (I'll save my I-was-attacked-by-a-baboon story for another post...) I spent a good half hour walking around and taking photos and a couple videos. I think I may have to go back to Africa for my next post, simply for the proximity to national parks...

Anyway, the Al Baha trip was short and sweet, and we had some great interactions. I'll post about Madain Saleh next week!

(the photos in the collage below are pretty low-res, as a better quality copy wouldn't load here. apologies.)