The week life in Dubai came to a standstill

The week life in Dubai came to a standstill
The week life in Dubai came to a standstill

(CNN) — The scenes in Dubai this week seemed apocalyptic to residents more accustomed to the tranquility of the sunny desert metropolis.

This city had not witnessed a natural disaster of such magnitude since records began, and the destruction it left behind only became apparent when the storm dissipated.

The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, saw the heaviest rainfall in at least 75 years, with a year’s worth of rainfall in 24 hours. The lives of many inhabitants of this dazzling tourist and financial center were practically paralyzed.

Emergency services worked tirelessly and there were no fatalities in the city, although a 70-year-old man died after his vehicle was swept away by floodwaters in the neighboring emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah.

The chaos was brief, but it highlighted the city’s vulnerability to natural disasters.

Runways were underwater and flights were canceled at one of the world’s busiest airports. Flashy shopping malls were soaked by rain seeping through roofs, and elevators stopped working in skyscrapers, forcing residents to climb dozens of flights of stairs. Unable to return home, some motorists slept in their cars due to road closures.

The images were shocking for the high-tech city, one of the main international tourist destinations that boasts world-class infrastructure, part of which gave way to the natural disaster. Rain is scarce in the Persian Gulf region and urban planning does not take into account the possibility of large storms.

Vehicles abandoned on a flooded road after a storm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday. (Credit: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Vehicles abandoned on a flooded road after a storm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday. (Credit: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Dubai has a unique demographic model. Of its 3.5 million inhabitants, 92% are foreigners who come from 200 countries to live and work in the city, attracted by its tax exemption and relaxed lifestyle.

According to one report, it is the second best tourist destination in the world, with more than 17 million visitors last year, attracted by year-round sunshine, gourmet restaurants and luxury shopping.

This week’s problems affected almost everyone, from tourists and migrant workers to the minority citizen population and Western expatriates.

The authorities asked people to https://twitter.com/NCEMAUAE/status/1780123802115948606?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1780123899507720295%7Ctwgr%5Ee5d4d32b69c1262fcf770df95a224df12e7e2f2b%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-04-16/dubai-grinds-to-standstill-as-cloud-seeding-worsens-floodingbut many went out anyway, only to find that they could not return due to the flooded streets.

“The scariest thing is that there was nowhere to go,” said Sofie, an expat resident who did not want to give her last name. She ended up stranded along submerged roads for nearly 12 hours, some of which she spent sleeping in her car.

On Sheikh Zayed Road, a 16-lane Dubai road lined with gleaming glass skyscrapers, motorists reported near-total blockages in some areas, with cars driving against traffic to escape the gridlock. In the financial district, home to the regional operations of some of the world’s biggest banks, luxury cars were seen almost entirely underwater as streets turned into lakes. At Dubai’s man-made marina, a popular destination among Western and Russian visitors, the current swept away furniture from nearby restaurants and cafes.

Major damage

When the waters receded, the streets were strewn with debris. Local media images showed roads with lanes of abandoned cars; in some neighborhoods, they had not yet been removed as of Thursday morning.

Economic damage from the storm could run into billions of dirhams, with a significant impact on vehicles, property and infrastructure, said Avinash Babur, chief executive of InsuranceMarket.ae, an insurance broker in the United Arab Emirates (1 dirham equals at US$ 0.27).

“The current damage is significant, with notable effects on both public and private property, including key infrastructure,” he told CNN. “Although Dubai has experienced storms in the past, the unique intensity of this event has posed new challenges.”

The volume of calls and inquiries to insurance companies has increased tenfold, he said, with demand for home insurance increasing.

Several people stand as floodwater caused by heavy rain covers the stairs of a residential building, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday. (Credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Several people stand as floodwater caused by heavy rain covers the stairs of a residential building, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday. (Credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

While some residents were trapped in their homes without power and unable to leave due to flooding outside, others chose to swim through swamps to escape. With landline use becoming scarcer, those left without power turned to power banks to power their smartphones.

For many, the lockdown was reminiscent of the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020.

Dubai, which relies heavily on foreign visitors and capital, was one of the first cities to emerge from lockdowns as tourist numbers dwindled and property prices fell, and the United Arab Emirates was one of the first countries to achieve 100% vaccination in November 2021.

Babur said the current situation presents an opportunity for Dubai “to showcase its resilience and rapid recovery, similar to its effective management during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Rely on smartphones

As food apps suspended deliveries during and after the storm, some residents had to turn to canned food, or whatever was left in their refrigerators, to survive. Those without electricity used grills to cook the frozen foods left in the freezers. Some fared even worse: houses flooded with water, sometimes up to their waists, according to videos shared in local media, with belongings, furniture and appliances destroyed.

The United Arab Emirates has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world, at 96% (the United States has 90% and China 72%). Residents rely heavily on home deliveries of everything from groceries and car fuel to ice cream and pedicures at the touch of a screen, a phenomenon that skyrocketed during Covid-19 lockdowns.

A man walks through flood water caused by heavy rain, with the Burj Khalifa tower visible in the background, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 17, 2024. (Credit: REUTERS/Amr Alfiky Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

A man walks through flood water caused by heavy rain, with the Burj Khalifa tower visible in the background, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 17, 2024. (Credit: REUTERS/Amr Alfiky Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

On a typical day, city streets are packed with cyclists rushing to make deliveries for companies that promise 20-minute delivery for groceries and 40-minute delivery for food. But earlier this week, most were not delivering. That forced people to go out on foot, which produced large crowds in the neighborhood’s restaurants and supermarkets, with lines lasting several hours to buy food in some cases. Some restaurants stayed open into the early hours of the morning to meet demand. The day after the storm, residents reported that supermarket shelves had empty shelves of some products, such as frozen foods and convenience foods. Delivery apps began to resume services on Thursday, but were still experiencing long delays.

Ali Salem, a 55-year-old retired Emirati, told CNN on Thursday that he had been stuck in his home in Dubai’s exclusive Jumeirah district since the storm hit on Tuesday due to flooding of his street. Since then he has had no water or electricity, and on Tuesday the electric company told him that he would have to wait two days for the problem to be resolved. Power was finally restored on Friday.

“Lesson learned,” he says. “A generator would be useful in the future.”

Festive atmosphere

The rain, however, was not so miserable for the young people. Schools moved to remote learning for the rest of the week, but some students without power at home were happy to take a vacation as they couldn’t turn on their computers.

Residents move their belongings in a kayak in a flooded residential complex after heavy rains, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. (Credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Residents move their belongings in a kayak in a flooded residential complex after heavy rains, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. (Credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Then the memes began, in which residents found joy and humor in the inconveniences of a phenomenon that occurs once every 75 years. A viral video on social media showed fish swimming in a puddle of water on a sidewalk next to an overflowing artificial lake. Several videos on social media showed a festive atmosphere, with children jumping in boats as their neighborhoods turned into ponds. One video showed migrant workers playing volleyball in ankle-deep water; In others, residents could be seen water skiing on flooded streets.

Another video showed kids jet skiing at full speed in a residential neighborhood, with the caption: “Only in Dubai.”

CNN’s Nadeen Ebrahim, Salma Arafa and Anna Chernova contributed to this article.

 
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