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Associated Press
Palestinian rescue members evacuate residents using a fishing boat following heavy rains Saturday in Gaza City that forced 40,000 from their homes.

Heavy flooding in Gaza forces thousands to flee

– Flooding from heavy rains has driven 40,000 Gaza Strip residents from their homes, including more than 5,000 evacuated by rescue workers using boats and construction equipment, officials said Saturday.

The downpour, which began late Wednesday, was part of a storm that covered Jerusalem and some of the West Bank with a thick blanket of snow. Even in parts of Gaza, a coastal territory with milder weather, snow fell for the first time in years.

In Israel, 28,000 homes remained without power Saturday, including thousands in Jerusalem.

In the low-lying areas of Gaza, water has been rising since heavy rains began late Wednesday.

One of the hardest hit areas was Nafak Street in Gaza City’s Sheik Radwan neighborhood, close to a rainwater reservoir.

Said Halawa, an area resident, reported the reservoir overflowed Wednesday evening. By Thursday, water had poured into the ground floor of his two-story home where he and 41 other members of his extended family live, Halawa said.

The family called for help and was evacuated by boat from the upper floor. Halawa said he and his family were taken to a makeshift shelter in a neighborhood school. “We got some assistance, some blankets and some food, but I didn’t save any of my belongings,” said the 52-year-old taxi driver.

Elsewhere on Nafak Street, local TV showed a rescuer standing on the shoulders of another man in a boat as they tried to reach people in a third-floor apartment.

In all, 5,250 people were rescued from flooded homes, said Mohammed al-Madaina of Gaza’s Civil Defense Department.

Another hard-hit area was the refugee camp of Jebaliya in northern Gaza.

“Large swaths of northern Gaza are a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the main U.N. aid agency for Gaza refugees, wrote in an email.

The U.N. agency evacuated hundreds of families to U.N. facilities and distributed 5,000 liters of fuel to local pumping stations, he said.

Housing Minister Yousef Jhariz, who headed the government’s crisis team, said that in all, the flooding forced about 40,000 people out of their homes.

He said the storm caused at least $64 million in damages.

The storm hit Gaza at a time when it is buckling under widespread fuel shortages and rolling power cuts as a result of a tightened border closure by Egypt.