SHIBAM, Yemen (AP) – At least 49 people were killed by floods sweeping through southern Yemen after a massive tropical storm slammed into the impoverished country, a senior police official said on Saturday.
Hamid el-Kharashi, a police chief in the southern province of Hadramut, said the death toll is expected to rise as scores of people are still missing and hundreds of families are homeless or trapped by the rising waters.
More than 638 houses have been demolished by the flash floods in Hadramut alone, he added.
A tropical storm formed out in the Indian Ocean earlier in the week and headed north, hitting Yemen’s remote Hadramut province on Thursday.
An Associated Press reporter in the historic city of Shibam watched a two-story mud brick house disintegrate in front of him.
“The house was flooded so my family and 16 others slept with relatives nearby,” said Ahmed Salam as he watched his home collapse. They evacuated the night before as rushing waters began to eat away at the foundation.
Damage has been extensive throughout the Hadramut because most homes are made of mud brick.
In Shibam, a UNESCO world heritage site, the towering 16th century mud brick buildings are collapsing from the unfamiliar downpour and ensuing flash floods. Shibam’s tall mud brick houses earned it the name of “the Manhattan of the desert.”
A 60-year-old farmer Karam Basalamah blamed local government corruption for exacerbating the damage by allowing illegal building in flood prone areas. “Local officials authorized the building of houses in the flood plain,” he said. “Now waters are diverted into the town, get trapped inside houses and cause them to collapse.”
The province of Mouhra, sandwiched between Hadramut and the border with Oman to the northeast, was affected as well.
On Friday, Mouhra deputy governor, Salem Numier, said floods have cut off main roads, caused power outages. There was also a shortage in medicine and food supplies, he said. Hadramut is Yemen’s largest province that occupies a third of the country.
Yemen’s national weather center said the storm was likely to continue through Saturday and warned fishermen and beach visitors of waves 16 foot (5 meter) high waves.