Families flee foaming flood waters, as rescue crews struggle to cope and UNRWA declares state of emergency
This is not the first time Shadi Swerki has had to leave his flood-hit home in al-Nafaq - a low lying area in Gaza City that is often the first to find itself submerged after heavy rainfall.
It was midnight in Gaza and Swerki had no option but to grab his four-year-old daughter, Amal, and run. His wife followed closely behind carrying their two-year-old son, Mohammed.
“I have no option, we can’t fight water breaking into our homes” the 31-year-old, father said.
In the early hours of Thursday, the water is almost up to 1.5 meters high, with more rain expected. The quick downpour means that there is no time to grab their belongings; they must leave their clothes and household things behind, knowing full well most will be ruined once they eventually return. Everyone in the surrounding neighbourhood is also being forced to evacuate and grab only whatever they can carry.
The scene is an all too familiar one. The frenzied rush was repeated so many times this summer during the 51-day war with Israel. The sight of children crying and screaming and women and the elderly taking to the streets with whatever they can carry as they desperately seek shelter is chillingly similar - regardless of whether they are fleeing rising tides or Israeli bombs.
The fire crews arrive at the scene to assist in the evacuation. They try to help the families who can’t make it out of their homes quickly enough. But there are so many people who need help, and very few facilities to help those in need.
"My mother had to flee from Shejayeh during the war, but now I am fleeing to her home, seeking shelter," said Swerki as his children stood on, shivering.
While the fire department called on al-Nafaq residents to evacuate their homes, many have nowhere to go; the schools are all filled with families, made homeless by the Israeli war, while friends and relatives with spare space are also likely harbouring those hard hit by the 51-day war.
For most displaced families in the Nafaq neighbourhood, rain has now done what war could not do. It has displaced and crippled them, leaving them with nothing as the bitter winter winds.
It is one of the coldest nights that Gaza has seen so far this winter, but the weather forecasters expects things to worsen over the next few days, especially for families in low-lying areas.
In principle, those on the lowest floors have been the most impacted by the rains, with Gaza’s fire services dedicating the majority of their manpower to getting these families out. But those on the higher levels are also suffering.
They may have avoided the waters for now, but they have no way of getting in or out and fetching clean water and supplies until the tides subside, leaving them at risk of dehydration and disease.
The fire department has prepared their boats to travel through the rain-soaked neighbourhood in search of those who have been trapped but with limited resources there are serious limits to how much they can do.
The municipality is also unable to bring in enough trucks to pump the floodwater out to the beach area, meaning that the situation looks set to get worse before it gets better.
The electric company has further reduce the already-rationed hours of electricity. While the move has been enacted in a bid to avoid public injury from electrocution and other possible knock-on effects, the power cut is further hampering rescue efforts and making the lives of those trapped inside more difficult.
Sadeddin Al-Atbash of the Gaza Municipality Emergency Department has called on all shop owners to evacuate their shops and assets, fearing that sanitation containers and raw sewage would flood out the shops and spew forth into the streets and into neighbouring areas.
Atbash has appealed to all Palestinian officials to intervene and help in the clean-up efforts across the Gaza Strip, but progress will be slow to come.
As Swerki explained: "Water is irresistible, so what can a municipality bulldozer do - all the water is coming in - just plain cold water pouring into our bedrooms."
In Gaza, flooding is a huge problem, with the local authorities lacking the equipment, expertise and funding to deal adequately with the problem. Israel's seven-year blockade only further exasperated the already dire situation, by stopping life-saving supplies from reaching 1.8 million people in Gaza.
This was then further compounded by the brutal summer war that caused an
estimated $5 bn in economic losses, according to Palestinian Housing and Public Works Ministry.
Still, Gaza residents for now are also placing the blame on the consensus government, which they think should take overall responsibility for the crisis, and call on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Consensus Government Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdllah, to act quickly.
In December of last year, thousands of Gazan families were displaced when a severe cold snap and torrential rainfall flooded entire neighbourhoods, including Al-Nafaq, causing massive damage.
Gaza resident, Mohammed El-Dalou, 62, is one of those who blames the government and says that they ignored public appeals last year.
According to Dalou, while the current consensus government was not in power then, they should have been aware of the need in Gaza and made it a priority.
"Those whose homes were swept away and those who drowned [in last year’s floods] have not received any form of compensation to this day,” said Dalou. “They are not even able to get compensation for all the goods and shop products they lost - and this year’s flood will be more catastrophic, if we don't have immediate intervention.
"We are at the start of winter, and look what is happening? Imagine when it starts to rain heavier in the weeks to come," he added.
The crisis is not easy to solve. The area is low-lying and it is unlikely that any effort, bar a massive town planning project, could help to better protect the area and help drain excess water.
Also, while Al-Nafaq gets the most attention, other areas are also flooded across Gaza Strip. Hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza City, and elsewhere, have now begun evacuating their homes in fear of further flooding to come.
"We live from flood to war. The war and then the flooding again, then we move on as best we can - but we are tired of displacement whether from flooding or war," said Swerki, as he looked on at the destruction, still clutching some clothes in one hand and his young daughter in the other.
With the rescue crews horribly outmatched, and the rains showing no mercy, there are few real options left. Amidst the carnage, a simple tuk-tuk vehicle managed to make its way through the rain to ferry mattresses to the few dry patches where families huddled together, trying to get some sleep.
The tuk-tuk soldiered on, even as larger engines in neighbouring cars whimpered and failed to start.
A few soaked donkeys were also lending a hand and acting as a rescuer of last resort.
For Swerki, the donkey cart is hardly ideal. There is a limit to what they can carry and the wheels keep getting stuck in the ever creeping mud, they also get rattled when the water level rises close to their ears.
But this is also not the first time that Swerki has had to try and rescue his family and belongings from the clutches of the angry storm, and he knows that sometimes the donkey may offer the only way out.