The last thing Yemenis needed in the middle of their long and bitter civil war was a natural disaster. But now the most powerful storm in decades, Cyclone Chapala, has struck the ill-equipped nation, flooding an al-Qaeda-controlled port and much of surrounding Hadhramaut Province.
Thanks to downed communications systems and the extent of the extreme weather, aid to those affected in southern Yemen had barely begun by dusk on Tuesday and officials were still assessing the damage.
Cyclone Chapala came barreling into the southeastern port city of Mukalla in the early hours of Tuesday. While the extremely rare tropical storm weakened throughout the day, it still had not cleared enough for aid efforts to begin in earnest.
“One of the reasons you’re not going to see much [relief] at the moment is the storm is still overhead,” explained Sebastian Rhodes-Stampa, senior humanitarian officer for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in Yemen.
Getting aid to those who need it is complex in Yemen, where a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began a campaign of airstrikes in March in a bid to oust the Houthis from power.
More than 5,000 people, including at least 2,300 civilians, have been killed since the bombing began and the country is deep in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, woefully short on fuel and water, its medical system devastated.
In the midst of the chaos, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took control of Mukalla from government forces in April.
IRIN received reports that AQAP had evacuated civilians from areas closest to the coast in the hours before the storm, but they could not be independently verified.
Rhodes-Stampa said OCHA had stored supplies in Mukalla before the storm hit and will push in further convoys when the storm passes.
The World Health Organization had also prepared for the cyclone by distributing trauma kits in Hadhramaut, as well as petrol for ambulances and diesel to hospitals that rely on generators for electricity.
Dr. Ali Sareyah, head of the Ministry of Public Health and Population’s emergency department, said the government had four emergency teams ready to fly into the affected areas, but had not yet received clearance to lift off.
All aid convoys and air traffic must be coordinated with the Saudi-led coalition, so as to avoid unintended civilian casualties.
A clear picture of the damage has still not emerged.
Despite reports of three deaths, Sareyah said the government couldn't confirm the casualty count, adding that there were 11 confirmed injuries. Phone lines in Mukalla had been knocked out, making confirmation difficult.
But Dr. Mamdouh Afif, the head of Al-Hajareen Hospital in Mukalla, was aware of at least one death – a young man who fell off his roof after climbing on top to seek safety.
OCHA, too, was unable to confirm the extent of the damage. Before the storm, it predicted 1.8 million people would be affected, including more than 100,000 internally displaced people and 27,000 refugees and migrants.
“We have reports from Mukalla of very severe flooding, and locals report that the water level has risen by about nine meters,” said Rhodes-Stampa.
From what he could gather, “the situation is pretty grim.”
Authorities had a better handle on the destruction on Socotra, an island some 350 kilometres from the mainland that was hit over the weekend.
General Abdullah Jumaan, head of security forces’ operations’ room for the island, told IRIN there had been no deaths but the “property damage is huge.” He listed damages to main roads, and said 117 homes were destroyed and 612 more severely damaged. There is no power on the island, he added.
Socotra local Mohammed Sayed described the scene: “Everyone went the roofs of their houses to keep safe, but many of the houses were destroyed,” he told IRIN.
The danger from Chapala has not passed. Yemen’s dry coastal region receives, on average, less than 2 inches of rain each year. The cyclone has dumped several times that in the span of a day.
The terrain doesn’t absorb water well, and Rhodes-Stampa said OCHA was anticipating “significant flooding, flash flooding and standing water.”
“This isn’t going to be the end of it,” he added.
As the storm whirled in, the World Health Organization in Yemen warned on its Twitter account that “in case of floods and sea surges, risks of drowning and water… and vector-borne disease increase.”
In a country where the health system is deteriorating fast and 8.6 million Yemenis had no access to healthcare even before the conflict began, this is cause for serious concern.