Rare, heavy rains soak pilgrims in Islam's hajj
Rare, heavy rainstorms soaked pilgrims and flooded the road into Mecca, snarling Islam's annual hajj as millions of Muslims headed for the holy sites. The downpours add an extra hazard on top of intense concerns about the spread of swine flu, AP reported.
Pilgrims in white robes porting umbrellas, some wearing face masks for fear of the flu, circled the black cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, the opening rite for the hajj. But the shrine - Islam's holiest site - and the nearby, rain-soaked streets did not see the usual massive crowds, because many tried to stay inside nearby hotels or were caught up in the traffic jams heading into the city.
The hajj - a lifetime dream for Muslims to cleanse their sins - is always a logistical nightmare, as a population the size of a small city moves between Mecca and holy sites in the nearby desert over the course of four days.
In the past, the rites have been plagued by deadly stampedes caused by congestion as the massive crowds perform the rituals - and Saudi authorities Wednesday were clearly concerned the rains could worsen the potential dangers. Civil authorities urged pilgrims to move cautiously and not to rush.
This year has brought the added worry that the massing of more than 3 million people from around the world could bring a swine flu outbreak. For months ahead of the pilgrimage, the Saudi government has been working with the United States' Center for Disease Control and Prevention to set up clinics and precautionary measures to stem any outbreak.
So far, four pilgrims have died from the H1N1 virus since arriving in Saudi Arabia in recent days, and 67 pilgrims have been diagnosed with the virus, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah told the Arab news network Al-Jazeera English.
Shahul Ebrahim, a consultant from the Atlanta, Georgia-based CDC at the hajj, said it was too early to tell if the rains could exacerbate the spread of H1N1, the flu virus.
"Rain can lead to other waterborne diseases ... such as the common cold, flu. But we still don't know how it will effect H1N1. We can't predict," he told The Associated Press.
So far, the rain was mainly just causing traffic snarls. Winter is the rainy season in Mecca, and light showers are not uncommon, but such a heavy downpour has not been seen for years during hajj. The pilgrimage takes place according to Islam's lunar calendar, and so rotates through the year.
Civil Defense spokesman Maj. Abdullah al-Harthi said his organization has plans ready to deal with flooding, including 300 buses to evacuate pilgrims if necessary. He said no casualties have been reported from the rains, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
One lane of the main road into Mecca was closed by flooding, reducing it to one lane, said Amer al-Amer, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "It cannot handle the pressure of all the people coming from outside Mecca," he said, adding that it would cause delays of several hours for people trying to reach the sites.
The numbers of pilgrims are expected to exceed last year, when some 3 million attended, al-Amer told AP.
Streets were flooded in the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah, the entry point for many pilgrims. Pilgrims on Wednesday were making their way to Mecca to perform the circling of the Kaaba and to the nearby desert valley of Mina, where a sprawling tent city has been set up for them to reside in.
Water covered the floors in many of the tents, said Suleiman Hamad, a 29-year-old pilgrim in Mina. He said the scene was "muddy, but manageable," with many pilgrims throwing blankets over their heads when they walked outside.
Rain fell sporadically throughout the day, and stopped by late afternoon in many sites - though it continued to fall in Mecca. Al-Amer and other authorities were optimistic that flooded areas would dry by evening.
On Thursday, the mass of pilgrims will flock to Mount Arafat, a plateau outside Mecca where the prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon. They then proceed to Mina, where over the next three days they perform a rite stoning three stone walls in a symbolic rejection of the devil.