The heaviest rainfall in at least eight decades sent flash floods barreling across a major highway and into busy business districts in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, on Wednesday, trapping factory workers and truck drivers in their vehicles and, according to the latest reports, drowning at least 31 people across northwestern Turkey.
Waters six feet (2 meters) high in some places flooded hundreds of homes and offices and cut off the TEM highway, which connects central Istanbul to the sprawling city’s main airport and goes on to Greece and Bulgaria.
Rescue crews in helicopters pulled people off rooftops in Ikitelli, a district of media offices and corporate headquarters about 13 miles (20 kilometers) from the Bosporus strait, which divides the European and Asian parts of Turkey.
The surging water flipped trucks, cars and buses, crushing many into piles of debris.
Some people took refuge atop stranded vehicles. Others were pulled from the floodwaters by passers-by who threw ropes or pulled them from the raging waters.
Inflatable boats fought the swirling waters to go from vehicle to vehicle, picking up survivors. Several others managed to swim to a tractor driving at the edge of the floods.
“The waters came suddenly and flowed over my car,” survivor Suleyman Kucukkaya told Associated Press Television News. “‘We were dragged away up to some barriers.” One man struggled in the swirling brown water but kept disappearing beneath the surface and appeared to drown.
Turkey’s meteorology institute said about 5.2 inches (13.2 centimeters) of rain fell in the area.
Rapid population growth fueled by decades of emigration from Turkey’s impoverished rural regions has meant that the metropolis of 15 million has developed without adequate infrastructure to handle even moderate rainfall.
“The rains are not able to reach the sea through natural channels due to skewed and unplanned development,” said Filiz Demirayak, the World Wildlife Fund’s Turkey director.
Gov. Muammer Guler of Istanbul said seven women drowned inside a van that had just brought them to work at a textile factory in the nearby district of Halkali. “There was no escape other than the back door, and it was stuck by the pressure of the flooding water,” Guler said.
Flood waters caught other victims in their sleep, including 10 truck drivers who were killed at a parking lot that was littered with upended trucks.
Guler said at least 20 people were killed in downtown Istanbul, 20 injured and an unknown number missing. Eleven people have died in other areas of northwestern Turkey since heavy rains and flooding began there late Monday, including six in suburbs of Istanbul and five in Tekirdag province, west of the city, authorities said.
The emergency authorities said as many as 1,700 homes and offices were flooded in the Istanbul suburb of Silivri.
Flights continued at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, an official said, but many passengers could not reach the airport or leave it.
By evening, receding flood waters exposed thick deposits of mud in parts of Ikitelli.
More rain was forecast for northwestern Turkey throughout the week, with authorities warning against flooding in several other cities.
In July, flash floods killed at least six people in the northeastern province of Artvin and inundated more than 100 homes and workplaces in the Black Sea province of Giresun.
In 2006, flooding from torrential rains killed 22 people across Turkey, including 14 who died when a minibus carrying wedding guests was swept away.
Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
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