MUSCAT, Oman, (AP) – A powerful cyclone lashed Oman’s coast and capital with rare heavy rains and wind Wednesday, after thousands of people fled low-lying areas. The strongest recorded storm to hit the Arabian peninsula was moving next toward southern Iran, but was weakening and expected to skirt the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
No deaths had been reported by midmorning Wednesday across Oman or its capital, Muscat, where rains were heavy and visibility was near-zero at midmorning. Rains had subsided slightly earlier Wednesday but had intensified again by midmorning and were expected to remain strong through mid-afternoon, as the heaviest part of the storm moved closer to Muscat.
Electricity was out in some parts of the city and many roads were closed, but Omani officials said most of the country’s oil fields, to the northwest of the capital, were still operating.
In Iran, authorities evacuated hundreds of people living in the port city of Chabahr on the coast of the Sea of Oman, believed to be next in the cyclone’s path.
The storm had weakened considerably since Tuesday. Maximum sustained winds of about 90 miles per hour were reported with gusts to nearly 104 miles per hour, regional weather services said.
As of 7 a.m. (11 p.m. EDT), the storm was reported about 115 miles southeast of the Omani capital of Muscat moving in a northwesterly direction, the services said. A tracking map posted on the Web site of the U.S. military’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center predicted the center of the storm would skirt the capital Muscat after 4 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT) Wednesday.
Blogger Vijayakumar Narayanan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that many city streets were flooded and that visibility was near-zero in Muscat at midmorning Wednesday.
NowPublic.com, a journalism Web site with 98,000 members in 3,500 communities worldwide, reached out to the blogger in Oman. The AP began working with NowPublic this year to obtain citizen journalism images and video for distribution to news organizations.
At 5:50 a.m. local time, Narayanan wrote in his blog: “We have noticed rains have subsided considerably. … Some of the wadis have started flooding, causing roadblocks.” But at 9 a.m., he said rains had again become strong in the city.
Narayanan said the storm has alarmed many Omanis, unaccustomed to cyclones. “They haven’t had this kind of fear before.”
Oman’s eastern provinces were cut off, with heavy rains making the roads unusable and communication lines severed. “We have no communication with them, nothing,” said a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as is customary habit for security and police officials in Oman.
Parts of Muscat had no electricity, said government official Sheik Mohamed bin Saif. But Nasser bin Khamees Al Jashmy, an official at the ministry of oil and natural gas, said only a single small oil field had been affected by the cyclone.
Cyclone Gonu was expected to skirt the region’s biggest oil installations but could disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz — the transport route for two-fifths of the world’s oil and the southern entrance to the Gulf — causing a spike in prices, oil analysts said.
Oil prices rose on Monday but retreated Tuesday, although the storm weighed heavily on the market.
“If the storm hits Iran, it’s a much bigger story than Oman, given how much bigger an oil producer Iran is,” said Antoine Haff of FIMAT USA, a brokerage unit of Societe Generale. “At a minimum, it’s likely to affect tanker traffic.”
Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, said the real fear is that the loading of tankers might be delayed by the storm.
“About 17-21 million barrels a day of oil are coming out of the Persian Gulf. Even if only some of the tankers are delayed, that could reduce the supply of oil and increase prices,” Takin said.
Gonu, which means a bag made of palm leaves in the language of the Maldives, was expected to hit land in southeastern Iran late Wednesday or early Thursday, according to AccuWeather.com meteorologist Donn Washburn.
On Tuesday, as the cyclone approached, authorities evacuated nearly 7,000 people from Masirah, a lowland island off the east coast of Oman, according to Gen. Malik bin Suleiman al-Muamri, head of the country’s civil defense. Oman’s main international airport in Muscat also was closed.
Masirah Island includes one of four air bases that the Omani government allows the U.S. military to use for refueling, logistics and storage, although little has been revealed publicly about U.S.-Oman military ties.
The Masirah base hosted U.S. B-1B bombers, C-130 transports and U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunships during the war in Afghanistan, and the United States has continued to have basing rights on the island.
On Masirah, authorities said a state of emergency had been declared. Troops and police were mobilized to help provide shelter and medical services.
Even with the weaker wind speeds, Gonu is expected to be the strongest cyclone to hit the Arabian Peninsula since record keeping started in 1945. A cyclone is the term used for hurricanes in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.