Ravaged by cyclone, Omani capital cleans up

The streets of Muscat, Oman, are littered with destroyed cars like this one, seen on Thursday.Kamran Jebreili / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This seaside city has long been renowned as one of the Mideast's prettiest, with a gorgeous mountain backdrop, a smattering of hilltop castles overlooking a sparkling sea, and a proud leader who rigorously tends to his capital city.

But on Thursday, Muscat came unglued. Cyclone Gonu romped through the tidy Omani city before heading north across the Sea of Oman and hitting Iran.

The postcard-perfect mountains that are the city's pride became its pain. Torrential rains poured onto the bone-dry peaks and then flowed into canyons and dry riverbeds that channeled the raging water directly into the city.

Bridges collapsed. Buses were piled in the wadis, the normally dry riverbeds that course through the city.

Muscat's lush palm and eucalyptus groves were blown over along with telephone and power lines. Even the normally sparkling blue sea, just off the crescent-shaped Muttrah Corniche looked like foamy chocolate milk.

Out on the sea, Gonu was downgraded to a tropical depression later Thursday, rapidly losing energy as it moved toward the Iranian coast. The storm was expected to spare Iran's offshore oil installations, which lie more than 120 miles to the west.

At least 35 people were reported dead, including three in Iran, and 30 more were reported missing.

In Muscat, residents spoke of a night of horror as turgid floodwaters ripped into their homes, carried off refrigerators and cars, and left their streets gouged by sinkholes and caked in shoals of mud.

Nidhal al-Masharafi, 31, hunkered all night on his rooftop with his wife and six children, with just the cell phone he gripped in his hand.

"The water broke through the walls. It came inside the house. It swept everything out," al-Mashrafi said, limping as he wandered the bank of a flooded wadi.

A half mile from his home, al-Mashrafi found his 2006 Subaru Outback, lying atop a taxi in the rapids of a new roaring river that slashed through his neighborhood.

From his rooftop perch, he said he saw floodwaters sweep 16 cars past, including a Ford Explorer which bobbed by with its headlights on.

"I called the police because I thought someone was still inside," he said. The Explorer could be seen Thursday resting upside down, half submerged.

Residents of the hard-hit neighborhood of al-Ghubra wandered along the banks of the temporary river, searching for their cars.

"I woke up today and my car was gone. I can't find it anywhere," said Humaid al-Harthi, 25, in a cream-colored dishdasha gown.

A few drivers desperate or foolhardy enough to drive across found themselves in rushing water up to their grilles. The crossing was the only entrance to an otherwise cut-off beachfront neighborhood.

Al-Harthi and other residents said it would take at least a year to restore the upper-class district.

Few doubt the city will regain its old polish.

Muscat is Oman's showcase capital _ the Geneva of the Middle East _ where the fastidious Sultan Qaboos has decreed that highways be swept daily and laws require homeowners to cover air conditioners with decorative boxes and wash their cars every two weeks.

In Gonu's wake, those homeowners were hauling soaked bedding and carpets from their concrete villas and piling it in the streets for the bulldozers busy clearing heaps of mud and rocks.

The massive cleanup was well under way as the sun popped out in the late afternoon and began drying Muscat off.

Workers with chain saws could be seen clearing downed trees while fleets of towtrucks went to work wrenching waterlogged cars and trucks from riverbeds.

Some sections of the city still lacked power and phone service a day after Gonu's eye had passed.

"I've never seen anything like this," al-Mashrafi said, a group of friends around him nodding solemnly. "But this is life. Anything can happen."