Saudi floods kill 77 as Muslims perform Haj
Most of the deaths occured in Jeddah, where streets were swamped with water, some houses collapsed and mudslides took place
Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia: Pilgrims holding white umbrellas against the blazing sun clambered up a rocky desert hill for prayers on Thursday during the annual Haj, following a day of torrential rains that killed at least 77 people.
Flooding from the unusually heavy downpours hit hardest in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, about 60km away from the holy city of Makkah and its surrounding sacred sites where the 3 million Muslims from around the world were performing the rites of the pilgrimage.
Most of the deaths occured in Jeddah, where streets were swamped with water, some houses collapsed and mudslides took place, and in areas around the main highway to Makkah, Civil Defense officials said.
It did not immediately appear that any pilgrims were among the dead. Jeddah's civil defence chief Capt. Abdullah Al Amri said 21 of the victims were identified as Saudis and the rest were believed to be residents of Saudi Arabia.
Wednesday's downpours snarled the opening day of the Haj, drenching pilgrims and knocking out roads that caused epic traffic jams as the faithful tried to make their way to the holy sites. The rains, if they continue as meteorologists predict, could raise safety hazards - particularly the perennial danger of deadly stampedes, since a trip-up on slippery walkways could lead to people getting trampled in crowds.
But skies cleared for most of Thursday, and the heat rose. The umbrellas that protected pilgrims from the rain now were shades from the hot sun as they conducted their rituals in the desert plateau of Mount Arafat, about 20km east of Makkah.
The site is where Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) delivered his farewell sermon. The faithful climbed up the Mountain of Mercy, a rocky hill at Arafat, and prayed for God's forgiveness of their sins in what Muslims consider the spiritual high point of the pilgrimage.
Afterward, they prepared to head for the nearby plains of Muzdalifah, where they will pick stones for the next step in the Haj: Starting Friday, they will pelt stones at three walls representing the devil in a symbolic rejection of temptation. The stoning takes place for three days in the mountain valley of Mina, until the end of Haj on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia's biggest worry for months ahead of the Haj has been swine flu. The pilgrimage is one of the most crowded in the world, with the masses of Muslims from every corner of the globe packed shoulder to shoulder in prayers and rites - a perfect incubator for the virus, according to epidemiologists.
The Saudi government has been working with the United States' Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to set up clinics and take precautions to stem any outbreak.
It often rains in Makkah and Jeddah during the winter months, but Wednesday's downpour was the heaviest in years during the Haj. Jeddah was swamped with 7 centimeters of rain, more than it would normally get in an entire year, according to Dale Mohler, senior meteorologist at the Web site, AccuWeather.com.
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