Saturday, June 23, 2007

Gonu Happened

It feels petty to want to write anything on the blog without mentioning Gonu. For posterity's sake, here's my take on Gonu. I wouldn't want to come back to this blog a year from now and find a big hole where the biggest event to hit my country in thirty years happened.

We got back from Thailand right before Cyclone Gonu hit Muscat. We were told that ours would be the last flight to be allowed to land in Muscat before the airport closes. Thank God, because we couldn't imagine ourselves being away from home while a hurricane batters our country and all our loved ones. So we landed and went home quickly, didn't even wait for all our luggage to come out. It started to rain two hours later.

I'm not going to go through it all. It's been two weeks, and frankly we've been Gonu'd out. It's devastating and heartbreaking: Thousands of homes damaged. Thousands of people living in shelters. Roads and bridges collapsed. Cars piled up in heaps everywhere (at least 10,000 cars totaled by one estimate).

The official death toll is mysteriously stuck at 49 since two days after the hurricane. We keep hearing stories of bodies being found every day but the police insist that only 49 people perished. I've been told that over 100 bodies were found floating in the sea alone. There's one workshop in Wadi Adai which reported 40 of its workers missing and so far 12 have been confirmed dead. Some guy swears that there are over 350 bodies in the Armed Forces Hospital which are still to be identified. Another guy claims that the total bodies kept in hospitals is already around 1000. Another guy who is usually quiet well connected claims that his sources confirm 1600 dead as of last Wednesday.

No matter which way you look at it, it is a major catastrophe. The initial estimates of the damage by the government were at around $4 billion of damage. The final figure would probably be around 6 billion. Reconstruction costs are going to be much higher than estimated. Price of building materials is already shooting up. Oman was already facing cement shortages before the hurricane. And with the existing shortage of labor in the construction industry the cost of rebuilding will definitely be high.

The government has a team of about 600 surveyors going around to all the houses that have been damaged by the hurricane making estimates of repairs as well as replacement of damaged items. However, there is yet to be any confirmation from the government of what the extent of compensation that citizens can expect. Will the government pay to rebuild these houses or will it only give partial compensation?

And what about the cost of rebuilding? Oman has steadfastly refused all outside aid. Initially the spokesman for the National Council for Civil Defence said that we don't need aid because we have a 6 month supply of emergency food and water. But what about monetary aid. Is Oman planning to cover the cost of rebuilding itself? It's just about the equivalent of last year's budget surplus which was transferred into the State General Reserve Fund. But our reserve fund isn't transparent like some other countries. Oman was running on a deficit for years until oil prices shot up earlier this decade. And the country has been investing into large big ticket projects like refineries, dry docks, a fleet of LNG tankers, not to mention Oman Oil's investments abroad. Have those been financed from the reserve or other sources? Since Oman thrives on rumors, word is that the country has agreed to accept monetary aid only from GCC countries on condition that the donations are kept secret. Who knows, it could be true that Saudi Arabia has pledged half a billion dollars and the UAE a slightly lower amount. Or it could be bogus.

On the positive side, despite the bitching and complaining by many (we Omanis love to bitch, it's our national passtime). The government did do a brilliant job tackling the disaster. If His Majesty the Sultan hadn't declared a national holiday and forced people to stay at home, the disaster would have been much greater. Many people thought they were getting a 4 day vacation, little did they know. The government forced an evacuation of coastal areas and sent thousands of people to shelters. They evacuated the entire population of the Halaniyat islands. The biggest fear was the strong winds and the extreme waves and tides. Little did we know that it wasn't the sea that was going to be the enemy, but the massive amounts of rain that fell in the mountains and came rolling down to the cities in a torrent unlike any we've ever seen. The response in the initial 48 hours following the hurricane by the various government bodies was excellent whether it was Oman TV and radio keeping people up to date with news of casualties, road conditions, electricity and water availability, etc. One criticism here is the lack of information in English. I kept switching the English FM during the hurricane and whenever I did all I heard was a continuous stream of pop songs.

Muscat Municipality did an outstanding job in rebuilding damaged roads. I was told by a couple of large construction companies that as soon as the weather calmed, the president of the municipality was personally calling them and mobilizing their entire available fleets of equipment without any discussion of payments or anything of the sort. All that could be done later, but getting roads opened was priority number one.

Two weeks post Gonu, in some parts of Muscat it's hard to tell that a hurricane had passed through. But in many places it will be quite a while till all's back to normal. The Qurm shopping area is still a ghost town with no electricity and shops still under layers of mud.

The beaches have been cleaned, but the ecological damage is immense. Assessments are still being done on the status of coral reefs, but the initial news is no good at all. In some popular dive spots the reefs have been entirely removed by strong currents or debris. The sea conditions are still bad and complete assessments will take time.

Was Gonu a freak incident, one of those once every 30 years storms that hit Oman? Or was this global warming in full effect? It's only been two weeks since Gonu and already there was a threat of another cyclone could be heading to Oman. Are we really in the midst of a shift in the world's weather patterns? Would Oman henceforth be a cyclone zone every summer? I hope not.

Links:

Flickr: All photos tagged with Gonu
YouTube: Gonu videos
Gonu Relief Blog
OmanForum.com's Gonu Discussion Forum
NewsbriefsOman.info - very good posts about Gonu

5 comments:

BuJ said...

Good post about a sad topic.
I'm glad you're safe and that you're documenting this. Bless you and ever single Omani and the Sultan's wise leadership.

Twister said...

good post...it's true that the world's weather seems to going in stranger formations every year...Last winter was coldest on record in many parts of Pakistan...and this year, just a few days back we've had the highest temperatures in 78 years in Pakistan...Winter of 2005-06 was the coldest on record in oman in quite a while...while australia has been gripped by such a crippling drought that it has brought the country to it's knees in some places...

nature seems to be getting back on us...real hard...

We can only pray that Allah keeps us safe from such calamities, while we prepare ourselves and build enough redundancy into our infrastructure to withstand such events...

TI3GIB said...

Good Post. Gonu will always leave an unmistakable mark in the heart of Oman. We were hit hard. Harder than anyone would've expected and for the first time in 30 years we felt deprived from our security and prosperity. But our perspectives towards a lot of things have already changed, and more is bound to.

Keep up.

Off-Topic Note
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Alan said...

I lived in Oman from 1966 through to the early 1980s (my dad worked for PDO) and I can remember some horrendous storms, though I'm sure not quite on this scale. Unless you have lived through one you have no idea of the power of nature, it is *really* frightening. And as you say, it's the water coming from the mountains behind that seems to kill the most people and do the most damage.

I hope you and the rest of the people of Oman get back to normal as quickly as possible!

Suburban said...

Great post muscati. Glad you guys are back and safe.

I'll be interested to see if the government allows busines and homes to be rebuilt in the same flood prone places. Take CCC for example, I don't have anough fingers to count how many times the Mac donals's has been flooded. Maybe the businesses take the cost of periodic flooding into account with hie business plans.

-S