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Oman and Yemen brace for tropical cyclone Mekunu, strongest on record to threaten the region

Videos from Salalah, Oman show tropical cyclone Mekunu flooding streets and whipping winds ahead of making landfall May 25. (Video: The Washington Post)

Packing winds of 115 mph, tropical cyclone Mekunu is set to wallop southwest Oman and eastern Yemen on Friday night and into the weekend. Since Thursday, the very severe cyclonic storm rapidly gained strength and is on a collision course with Oman’s second-largest city, Salalah, with a population of about 200,000.

“Very bad news for Oman,” tweeted Ryan Maue, meteorologist with “Tropical Cyclone #Mekunu is intensifying (rapidly) … and will not stop until landfall.”

If the storm makes landfall at its current intensity, the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane, it will be the strongest on record for Oman.

On Thursday, Mekunu ravaged the Yemeni island of Socotra, just to the south of Oman, where 17 people have been reported missing.

As of Friday evening local time, Salalah reported heavy rain and winds sustained at 55 mph, gusting to 67 mph. The Times of Oman reported Oman’s emergency response unit had stood down its field team because of the deteriorating conditions. Salalah’s airport was shut down and was expected to remain closed for at least 24 hours.

Devastating flash flooding, a dangerous storm surge and damaging winds are all likely to afflict the popular tourist destination.

The city, which only averages five inches of rain per year, may double that amount in 24 hours. It had already received almost 3 inches as of Friday evening. Model forecasts show the potential for 8 to 16 inches of rain. Such copious rainfall over the dry terrain in a short time is likely to overwhelm drainage systems and flood low-lying areas.

Adding to flooding concerns, the storm will push a substantial storm surge onto the coast, raising the water level at least several feet above normally dry land just to the east of where it makes landfall. Low-lying homes, businesses and roads near the coast may be engulfed by ocean water. And waves up to 32 feet high could slam ashore.

Wind gusts of more than 100 mph inside the storm’s core are likely to damage buildings and generate widespread power outages.

Farther inland, in southern Oman and eastern Yemen, especially in the elevated terrain, rainfall and flash flooding are likely to become the most dangerous hazard. The storm’s winds will rapidly weaken as the storm moves inland, but it will have a tremendous amount of tropical moisture to unload.

The mountainous zone north of Salalah could be especially hard hit.

“Moisture-laden winds will plow directly into the Qara Mountains and get forced upward,” wrote Bob Henson and Jeff Masters at Weather Underground Category 6 blog. “Torrential runoff can be expected from these hillsides onto the coastal plain.”

Since 1980, 16 tropical cyclones have passed within 100 miles of the Oman and Yemen coast. But only three made landfall at hurricane strength:

The Times of Oman and other area media said government agencies undertook a massive preparation effort ahead of the potentially historic storm. Salalah’s port evacuated all ships. A major hospital was evacuated. Coastal roads were closed. Shelters were opened. Low-lying areas were sandbagged. Building cranes were secured.