People walk during a rainstorm in the Haram district of Giza on Thursday. (Mohamed el-Shahed/ AFP)

An unusually powerful storm has slammed into the Middle East, unleashing torrential rain, destructive winds and towering walls of dust. This storm is occurring as Egypt, Israel and other nations in the region are confronted by the growing threat from the novel coronavirus.

The vigorous storm, nicknamed the “dragon” on social media, has left five dead in Egypt and is plowing toward Israel. Forecasts from Israel’s meteorological service are calling for thunderstorms with hail across much of Israel on Thursday night into Friday morning, along with windy conditions with gusts as high as 50 mph from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and north to the border with Lebanon.

On Thursday in Egypt, the tempest shut down schools, government offices, rail service and cruises, as well as Luxor International Airport, a major tourist hub, according to the Associated Press.

“This is the heaviest rain in recent memory,” wrote Sudarsan Raghavan, The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief, via instant message from Egypt. “The rain was so heavy that houses, including ours, are leaking lots of water from the ceilings. We have towels and buckets everywhere to catch the water. The houses in Egypt are not built to weather big rain storms.”

Flooding rains were blamed for the death of a child and five injuries in the southern province of Qena.

In other areas, high winds careening toward the ground from thunderstorms whipped up massive walls of dust:

The storm also led to power outages, car accidents, road closures and collapsed structures, according to local news media.

While the worst weather in Egypt has mostly passed, a narrow corridor of intense winds is possible on the storm’s backside, sweeping into Egypt overnight into Friday morning with 50 mph gusts.

The sprawling system is slamming Israel with pockets of damaging winds and flooding rains. According to the Times of Israel, the country’s meteorological service expects 60 mph or greater winds to arrive Thursday night with the strongest gusts in mountainous areas. However, some computer models anticipate wind gusts of nearly 75 mph blasting along the coast of Israel.

The high winds could lead to downed trees, power outages and even some structural damage.

Heavy rains and potential flooding is expected in Israel between Thursday night and Friday morning before conditions improve by evening.

Parts of Lebanon and Jordan may experience similar impacts from rain and wind. However, as the storm progresses east into Iraq, it is forecast to weaken.

The hazardous weather is sweeping through Egypt and Israel as the countries deal with the escalating coronavirus crisis. With 76 confirmed cases, Israel has banned international visitors and closed universities and schools until mid-April, and Egypt has reported 60 confirmed cases to date.

How strong this storm really is


European model simulation shows an intense area of low pressure over northern Egypt late Thursday. (WeatherBell)

A strong area of low pressure formed rapidly over Egypt early Thursday, and was continuing to intensify Thursday afternoon while drifting toward Cairo. In general, the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.

Barometric pressure readings were anticipated to drop to 989 millibars; typical sea level air pressures tend toward around 1015 millibars. As more air is evacuated out the top of the storm, it will strengthen further.

Some models estimate that the intensity of the storm for this region and time of year is six standard deviations from normal — or to put it simply, exceptionally rare.

The storm has whipped a sharp cold front east, stirring up a round of strong thunderstorms over the Sinai Peninsula. Impressive lightning rates were observed Thursday evening local time in eastern areas along the Israel border. Cool air “exhaust” from the thunderstorms, known as outflow, was responsible for kicking up walls of dust.

Contributing to this significant storm has been a dramatic dip in the subtropical jet stream. That’s helped both to intensify the surface low pressure cyclone and load it up with strong winds.