Worst storms in decade bring Mideast to near standstill
BEIRUT, Lebanon - 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 have claimed at least 11 lives across the region and exacerbated the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees huddled in tented camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The United Nations issued an urgent appeal for funds to help the refugees in the northern Jordanian camp of Zaatari, which was almost entirely flooded on Wednesday, leaving residents to battle mud and sub-zero temperatures.
"The next 72 hours will be a critical test of our ability to meet the basic needs of children and their families at Zaatari" UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Jordan representative, Dominique Hyde said in a statement on Thursday.
But students in countries battered by snow, rain and bitter winds got a break as authorities ordered schools and universities closed in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel and in some towns in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The education ministry in war-hit Syria also announced that mid-term exams will be postponed until further notice due to "the prevailing weather conditions" as snow blanketing the capital Damascus.
In Jordan, a blizzard brought the country to a near halt. King Abdullah II ordered the army to help clear roads across the usually parched country and help those stranded by the snow. Thursday was also declared a holiday.
The storm triggered power blackouts in several countries, including Lebanon, where electricity has been rationed since the 1975-1990 civil war. That plunged several areas into darkness and leaving those who rely on electricity to heat their homes shivering.
"Our boiler works with electricity, so of course we have no hot water," said Elsa, a Beirut housewife.
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.
Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil told AFP: "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."
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," and authorities urged citizens to remain indoors.
In Jerusalem, at least 10 centimetres (four inches) of snow blanketed the Holy City as dawn broke, turning the pine-covered hills into what looked like an Alpine ski resort picture postcard.
At least 11 people were reportedly killed in the region. Among them were 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 West Bank who died from a fire she started in her home to keep warm.
The storm also crippled many businesses, took a heavy toll on regional economies and, in Israel, put on hold election campaigns for the January 22 general election.
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.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, the snow was a godsend for young and old alike who rushed outside to make snowmen and enjoy snowball fights. - Rappler.com