Three inches of rain fell on Jeddah and surrounding areas yesterday, resulting in the deaths of 77 people. There are still reports of people missing, so that number may rise. The area around King Abdulaziz University was particularly hard hit, with part of the supporting structure for the elevated Haramain Highway knocked down, forcing the closure of that route between Jeddah and Mecca. Southern Jeddah, where many buildings are substandard in their construction, also saw great damage.
How floods like this can happen in a modern metropolis of five million people is a good question. It needs not only answers, but answers that lead to direct action to ensure that similar deluges don’t happen again. The simple answer is that the city’s infrastructure was not able to handle the rain run-off. More important is why that is the case. On Wednesday, my part of west-central Florida received three-to-five inches of rain. No one died, even as the result of a traffic accident. Other than a few puddles an inch or two deep, the water was gone withing hours of the rain’s passing. My city has a population of about 52,000 people and nowhere near the financial assets of Jeddah. So what’s the difference?
Part of the difference is in geology: Florida is largely sand, with a limestone deep beneath the surface. Jeddah is also sandy, but the sand is mixed with clays, making them impermeable (that is, the water doesn’t ‘sink in’), and relatively shallow. That means that when water builds up, there’s no place for it to go other than to flow.
In comments to earlier posts on the flood, I argue that the principal problem is a deep shortage of competent city planning. City planning isn’t only about meeting immediate needs–though of course, those must be met. It is also about planning for the unusual, though not unexpected. It doesn’t rain much in the Kingdom, but when it rains, wadis flood. They’ve been doing that for millions of years. Even prehistoric Arabs of the Peninsula knew to avoid the wadis when it rained. That knowledge appears not to have been carried over to the modern cities, however.
Cities, no matter where they are, are strapped for funds. When they draw up their budgets, they allocate money toward things that need doing immediately. Things that happen rarely just don’t get funded. Hindsight shows how the funding decisions ended up being poor ones, but that tends to be the case everywhere, e.g. New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.
Also in comments, is an argument that the principal problem is corruption, that those whose responsibility it is to provide for public safety have instead taken development money and put it to their own, personal benefit. I suspect that’s at least partially true.
What can be done about future floods, though?
I suspect that nothing short of digging up major parts of the city to install appropriate flood drainage systems will do. It will be harder to do now than if it had been done as the city was growing. It will be much more expensive. It will also annoy people as streets are closed and, perhaps, houses and offices are condemned to make way for the drainage. Looking at cities in the US similar in geology to Jeddah, you also find—as in Los Angeles—open drainage canals, tens of meters wide and ten meters deep. While these canals make for great action scenes in films and on TV, they also move massive amounts of water out of the city and directly to the sea.
The Saudi media is, of course, reporting on the disaster. Some of the reporting is the to-be-expected ‘gung ho’ reportage: ‘We are on top of the problem!’ ‘People are being rescued!’ Other reporting, though, is more critical, pointing out that the disaster has a more proximate cause…
‘What happened was a man-made problem’
Michel Cousins | Arab News
JEDDAH: The devastation caused by Wednesday’s flash floods in Jeddah could be seen across the city. One of the worst hit areas was Sulaimaniyah District, especially around the junction between Abdullah Sulaiman Street and the Harmain Expressway, near the city’s King Abdulaziz University. It was as if it had been hit by a tsunami. Hundreds of mangled cars littered the area. There were buses on their sides, cars thrown on top of other cars, others almost flattened beyond recognition. Reports that over 2,000 vehicles had been destroyed seemed no exaggeration.
Saudi Gazette reports that damages from the flood may exceed a billion Saudi riyals, US $270 million.
Thanks to Ahmed, at Saudi Jeans, here’s a YouTube video of the car-nage. It’s not clear to me whether this is where cars were swept by the floods or if the location might be where the vehicles were moved to clear the streets. I suspect the former.
UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous commenter, here’s a link to a Facebook photo album with 185 pictures of the flooding, from various sources.