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Dubai flooding hobbles major airport's operations as "historic weather event" brings torrential rains to UAE

Historic rain, flash flooding in Dubai
Flash flooding in Dubai as storm dumps historic rainfall 04:51

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — The desert nation of the United Arab Emirates attempted to dry out Wednesday from the heaviest rain ever recorded there after a deluge flooded out Dubai International Airport, disrupting travel through the world's busiest airfield for international travel. The state-run WAM news agency called the rain Tuesday "a historic weather event" that surpassed "anything documented since the start of data collection in 1949." 

The rains began late Monday, soaking the sands and roadways of Dubai with some 0.79 inches of rain, according to meteorological data collected at Dubai International Airport. The storms intensified around 9 a.m. local time Tuesday and continued throughout the day, dumping more rain and hail onto the overwhelmed city.

Flooding impacts Dubai International Airport

By the end of Tuesday, more than 5.59 inches of rainfall had soaked Dubai over 24 hours. An average year sees just 3.73 inches of rain fall at Dubai International Airport, a hub for the long-haul carrier Emirates.

At the airport, standing water lapped on taxiways as aircraft landed. Arrivals were halted Tuesday night and passengers struggled to reach terminals through the floodwater covering surrounding roads.

Motorisits drive along a flooded street following heavy rains in Dubai, early on April 17, 2024. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty

The airport said in a series of social media posts that all operations were halted for about 25 minutes on Tuesday afternoon and that all arrivals would be diverted after that "until the weather conditions improve." Late Wednesday morning, the airport and the flagship carrier Emirates were still warning travelers not to come to the airport unless absolutely necessary, saying all flight check-in was still suspended.

"Flights continue to be delayed and diverted. Please check your flight status directly with your airline," the airport said in a tweet. "We are working hard to recover operations as quickly as possible in very challenging conditions." 

One couple, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in a country with strict laws that criminalize critical speech, called the situation at the airport "absolute carnage."

"You cannot get a taxi. There's people sleeping in the Metro station. There's people sleeping in the airport," the man said Wednesday.

They ended up getting a taxi to near their home some 18 miles away, but floodwater on the road stopped them. A bystander helped them over a highway barrier with their carry-on luggage, the bottles of gin they picked up from a duty-free store clinking away.

Passengers wait at a flight connection desk at Dubai International Airport, April 17, 2024, amid flight delays and cancelations caused by flash flooding brought by a historic rain storm. AFP/Getty

Paul Griffiths, the airport's CEO, acknowledged continued issues with flooding Wednesday morning, saying every place an aircraft could be safely parked was taken. Some aircraft had been diverted to Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, the city-state's second airfield.

"It remains an incredibly challenging time. In living memory, I don't think anyone has ever seen conditions like it," Griffiths told the state-owned talk radio station Dubai Eye. "We are in uncharted territory, but I can assure everyone we are working as hard as we possibly can to make sure our customers and staff are looked after."

Did "cloud-seeding" contribute?

Rain also fell in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However, the rains were acute across the UAE. One reason may have been "cloud seeding," in which small planes flown by the government go through clouds burning special salt flares. Those flares can increase precipitation.

Several reports quoted meteorologists at the National Center for Meteorology as saying they flew six or seven cloud-seeding flights before the rains. The center did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday, though flight-tracking data analyzed by the AP showed one aircraft affiliated with the UAE's cloud-seeding efforts flew around the country Sunday.

The UAE, which relies heavily on energy-hungry desalination plants to provide water, conducts cloud seeding in part to increase its dwindling, limited groundwater.

Flooding closes schools across UAE

Schools across the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, largely shut ahead of the storm and government employees were largely working remotely if they could. Many workers stayed home as well, though some ventured out, with the unfortunate ones stalling out their vehicles in deeper-than-expected water covering some roads.

Heavy rains over Dubai
Cars are seen on a flooded street during a rainstorm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 16, 2024. Abdel Hadi Ramahi/REUTERS

Authorities sent tanker trucks out into the streets and highways to pump away the water. Water poured into some homes, forcing people to bail out their houses.

The country's hereditary rulers offered no overall damage or injury information for the nation, as some people slept in their flooded vehicles Tuesday night. In Ras al-Khaimah, the country's northernmost emirate, police said a 70-year-old man died when his vehicle was swept away by floodwater.

Fujairah, an emirate on the UAE's eastern coast, saw the heaviest rainfall Tuesday with 5.7 inches falling there.

Authorities canceled school and the government instituted remote work again for Wednesday.

Rain is unusual in the UAE, an arid, Arabian Peninsula nation, but occurs periodically during the cooler winter months. Many roads and other areas lack drainage given the lack of regular rainfall, causing flooding.

Meanwhile in neighboring Oman, a sultanate that rests on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, at least 19 people were killed in heavy rains in recent days, according to a statement Wednesday from the country's National Committee for Emergency Management. That includes some 10 schoolchildren swept away in a vehicle with an adult, prompting condolences from rulers across the region.

Heavy rains over Dubai
Vehicles are seen on a flooded street during a rainstorm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 16, 2024. Abdel Hadi Ramahi/REUTERS

Climatologists have warned for years that human-driven climate change is fueling more extreme and less predictable weather events across the globe.

Parts of southern Russia and Central Asia have also been dealing for days with unusually damaging amounts of rainfall and snowmelt, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate to higher ground and killing more than 60 people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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