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Science & Environment

Tropical Cyclone Chapala Batters War-Torn Yemen's Southern Coast

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Today and tomorrow, Yemen could get several times the amount of rain it usually sees in a year. A powerful tropical cyclone, Cyclone Chapala, moved west from the Arabian Sea and made a rare landfall in Yemen. At least three people have been killed, and dozens more are injured or missing. This would be a bad situation on its own, but this intense cyclone is pummeling a poor country where a war has been going on for more than half the year. Journalist Iona Craig is in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. And thanks for being with us today.

IONA CRAIG: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: The cyclone made landfall in a city called Mukalla on Yemen's southern coast. And this is a place that's mostly controlled by militants linked to al-Qaida. What are you seeing from there today?

CRAIG: Well, the footage and the images that have been coming out throughout the day have been pretty horrific and sort of terrifying, really. There's heavy flooding, cars submerged, houses being hit and, you know, a kind of apocalyptic scene, really. The Yemenis just aren't used to seeing that amount of water and that amount of rain at any one time.

MCEVERS: So with these al-Qaida groups in control, how will people receive any aid that is coming in?

CRAIG: Well, al-Qaida did their own kind of bit of PR in the few hours before the cyclone made landfall. And they were posting pictures of vehicles that they were going to be using for rescue. But when you've got that kind of floodwaters, you know, a long line of pickup trucks isn't going to be that helpful. The U.N. have said that they've been, you know, trying to make plans t help, and they'll be largely working through local organizations on the ground because obviously, access is an issue anyway when you have al-Qaida in control. And then add to it the floodwaters, and it's particularly difficult.

MCEVERS: I mean, this is one of the strongest cyclones on record in the Arabian Sea. Yemen hasn't seen anything like it in decades. Was there any preparation for this?

CRAIG: I think, really, people only found out about it in, literally, the last few hours, possibly a day before it made landfall. Communications are not great. There is no state to pass the message out. There's 2.3 million people already internally displaced in Yemen because of the war. So even if people had the opportunity to get out, there's not many safe places for them to go in Yemen right now.

MCEVERS: Before this storm, more than a million people were already considered to be in need of some kind of humanitarian support. I mean, help us understand what an event like this means for people in Yemen.

CRAIG: The worst time that you could possibly have a cyclone hit Yemen was after seven months of war. Four out of 5 Yemenis are deemed in need of humanitarian aid by the United Nations, which has put Yemen now at the stage of being on the brink of famine because of the blockade that has been imposed by the Saudi-led coalition here in Yemen. The country imports 90 percent of its food and supplies. The country is already at breaking point.

But I think the other thing that hit me, really, today is the fact that, you know, Yemenis have never really depended on the state. And really, I think it's the sense of community here that will really pull everybody together and help everybody to survive because one thing is a guarantee here, and that is, you will always get more support off your neighbor than you ever will off the government.

MCEVERS: Iona Craig, thanks so much for being with us today.

CRAIG: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Iona Craig is an independent journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.