Rare Middle East cyclone batters Oman

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A satellite image of Tropical Storm Gonu on June 4.

Tropical Storm Gonu headed toward Iran today, after lashing Oman for two days with high winds and torrential rains, and causing at least 23 deaths and the evacuation of more than 20,000 people to emergency shelters. Concern was high for the oil industry, as rough seas kept tankers from leaving their ports.

Such storms are rare in the Middle East. Early today, Gonu was weakening and was downgraded to a tropical storm. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center projected the storm to continue weakening as it made landfall on Iran's southeastern coast. Offshore Iranian oil installations were expected to be spared, officials said.

Oman lashed

In the Omani capital, Muscat yesterday, there were torrential rains and howling winds, a rarity in the quiet coastal city. Streets were flooded and emergency vehicles were useless. Flights were canceled at Oman's Seeb International Airport.

Twenty-three deaths were reported by Omani authorities today. Electricity and phone lines were out and roads flooded. Police said a body washed ashore in Sur. There were also reports of people trapped in homes in low-lying areas of the capital.

Authorities used mobile-phone text messages to warn people away from dangerous areas. Residents were warned to stay at home, or seek shelter in buildings that could withstand the harsh weather.

Shareefa bint Khalfan, Omani minister of social development, said more than 20,000 people were evacuated to government shelters.

At Oman's weather center, where records have been kept since 1890, metorologists said Gonu was likely the strongest storm to hit Oman since 1977. Milder tropical storms are common mid-May to late June.

Iran prepares

In Iran, hundreds of residents of Chabahr, a port on the Gulf of Oman, were evacuated.

"University and school students were moved to higher ground in the area to avoid the cyclone effects," Hojjat Ali Shayanfar, head of emergency services in Sistan Baluchistan province, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Some major roads were flooded in southeastern Iran. In the port city of Bandar Abbas, winds shattered windows and knocked down billboards & trees.

Impact on oil industry

Oman has relatively small oil fields, and there was little damage to them. But oil exports were cut off, as the raging seas kept tankers battened down in port for a third day today. To the north, at the world's third-largest shipping fuel center in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, all refueling and supply operations were suspended, and ships were kept in their berths. At the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, ships passed through, despite four- to six-foot swells and strong winds. About one-fifth of the world's oil passes through this narrow chokepoint.

Iran, OPEC's No. 2 oil exporter, said the storm would not disrupt supplies because its main terminals were inside the Gulf waterway. Analysts were mixed on how the storm will affect prices at the gas pump.

"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," Manouchehr Takin, at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

But Tim Evans, an analyst at Citigroup Global Markets, said while the storm may delay oil tankers, they will eventually get to their destinations, so prices shouldn't be affected too drastically.

Oil prices rose US$0.25 to $65.86 a barrel in midday trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Strongest cyclone

At its peak, Tropical Cyclone Gonu, named for a bag of palm leaves in the language of the Maldives, reached sustained winds of 240 kilometers an hour (149 miles per hour) . By early today, winds were around 83 km/h, and it was expect to keep weakening.

The storm is believed to be the strongest cyclone to hit the Arabian Peninsula since record-keeping started in 1945, and was tied for the strongest tropical cyclone in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.