August 3, 2006

Floods, snow cause havoc in S. African cities

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Heavy rain drenched large parts of South Africa's southern areas on Thursday, flooding roads and damaging houses in devastating storms, while deep snow forced mountain passes to close.

Temperatures dropped to record lows for August as snow fell in industrial hub Johannesburg for the first time in eight years in what local residents say is an unusually severe winter.

The city saw a high of 7 degrees Celsius (44 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday -- the lowest daily high recorded in August -- while overnight temperatures dropped well below freezing in some parts of the country. Colder temperatures are expected this weekend.

"There is serious flooding, we are today flooding in most areas of Port Elizabeth," South African Weather Services forecaster Mandisi Manentsa-Titise told Reuters.

The southern coast city, about 800 km east of Cape Town, was the latest coastal area to suffer serious damage as up to 270 mm of rain fell in the 24 hours to early Thursday.

Police said four people drowned on Wednesday when their car washed away after a bridge collapsed near George, a small town 400 km east of Cape Town, famous for its lush golf courses.

Roads were flooded and thousands of people fled their homes in nearby tourist haven Knysna.

Tifendell ski resort in the southern Drakensberg mountains recorded 20 cm of snow on Wednesday, and transport officials closed one of the main passes through the mountains near Lesotho due to thick snow.

Weather Service spokesman Siyabonga Mthethwa said a deep low pressure was pumping moist air and gale-force winds onto the southern coast.

But despite the devastation and record rainfall, the rains and icy weather were not particularly out of the ordinary for a southern hemisphere winter in South Africa, he said.

"Although there have been some records broken it is a normal winter ... it is normal to get a low pressure system deepening quite fast and causing havoc along the coastal regions," Mthethwa added.