SHIBAM, Yemen – Mohammed bin Gohar saw an old woman drowning in flood waters from a deadly tropical storm in southern Yemen, but couldn't save her. He was carrying his two kids and running with his wife to escape the deluge.
"The only thing I could do was hug my kids and run away with my wife as water reached our chest," the 33-year-old said Saturday. "I heard people screaming from houses just few steps from my house."
The death toll, now at 49, is expected to rise since scores of people are still missing and hundreds of families are homeless or trapped by the flood waters, said Hamid el-Kharashi, a police chief in the remote southern province of Hadramut.
Damage from the storm, which first struck Thursday, has been extensive in Hadramut — Yemen's largest province — because most homes are made of mud brick. The government has struggled to distribute relief supplies because the floods have washed out many roads.
At least 1,700 houses in the southern provinces of Mouhra and Hadramut alone have been destroyed, Yemen's official news agency said.
Ahmed Salem's house was located in the ancient fortress city of Shibam — a UNESCO world heritage site with towering 16th century mud brick buildings that earned it the name "the Manhattan of the desert."
Wet and exhausted, Salem said he fled with more than a dozen residents, including his wife and four children, to a safer neighborhood nearby. He returned Saturday morning to retrieve some belongings, and the house toppled over soon after he exited.
"I lived in this house all my life," Salem said. "I was born here."
Karam Basalamah, a 60-year-old farmer in Shibam, blamed local government corruption for exacerbating the damage.
"Local officials authorized the building of houses on the flood plain," he said. "Now waters are diverted into the town, get trapped inside houses and cause them to collapse."
Most of the residents of Shibam are well-off merchants who work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Many fled in the middle of the night like Salem and had harrowing stories to tell when they returned Saturday.
Yaslam bin Tarki, in his mid-60s, said he was stuck in a bed flooded with water in his one-story mud house for four hours because arthritis prevented him from getting up.
"I was almost missing until God sent me my neighbors to rescue me," he said.
Television footage showed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh moving from one devastated city to another. But most people affected by the disaster said they were receiving little help from the government.
"Officials disappeared, and they won't show up today or in a hundred years," bin Tarki said.
Others were determined to get government assistance.
"I am not leaving until the president comes and helps me," said a 65-year-old woman who identified herself only as Safiya, sitting teary-eyed in front of her destroyed house in Shibam.
The residents of Shibam were not alone in their misery. An Associated Press reporter riding in a helicopter saw the whole town of Tareem in Hadramut disappearing underwater. The reporter could only see the tips of houses rising out of a sea of muddy water.
Elsewhere in Hadramut, some 18 tourists trapped in a city called Ayfan were rescued by helicopter and transferred to the Yemeni capital of San'a, according to the government.
The province of Mouhra, sandwiched between Hadramut and the border with Oman to the northeast, was also affected by the storm.
On Friday, Mouhra deputy governor, Salem Numier, said floods had cut off main roads and caused power outages. There was also a shortage of food and medicine, he said.