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BREAKING NEWS

Devastating floods leave millions in Iran facing humanitarian crisis

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Image: Iranian soldiers help civilians in a flooded village near the city o
Iranian soldiers help civilians in a flooded village near the city of Ahvaz on March 21, 2019. -
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Mehdi Pedramkhoo
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AHWAZ, Iran — Two weeks since the storms started, relentless rain and flooding throughout Iran has left some 2 million people facing a humanitarian crisis.

The deluge has swamped large swaths of the country, from the mountains in the north down to the Persian gulf in the south.

Twenty-five out of 31 of Iran's provinces have been affected. Officials say say 76 people have been killed so far, with some 150, 000 homes partially or completely destroyed. Bridges across the country and miles upon miles of road have been left unusable. Authorities say the estimated bill to repair the damage stands at least $2.5 billion.

The country's agriculture sector, which makes up about 14 percent of Iran's GDP, has been devastated.

For more on this story, watch NBC's "Nightly News" tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET

'It's all gone'

In the oil-rich city of Ahwaz, in Khuzestan province, a local sports stadium is now home to rows of Red Crescent tents lined up next to each other.

The aid group, the Muslim world's equivalent to the Red Cross, is working with the government to respond to the disaster.

People in a Red Crescent aid center in Iran.
People in a Red Crescent aid center in Iran.Ali Arouzi

Hussein and Farideh Abdekhani, an elderly couple whose village was consumed by the floods, have sought shelter there for the past 10 days along with their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.

Farideh, a seamstress, told NBC News that the family had lost everything they had worked so hard for.

"Between us we had two fridges, three heaters and a television. Along with our home, it's all gone," she said.

"All we have left are the clothes we are wearing," she added, tugging the shirt her husband was wearing and pulling on her chador — a loose-fitting garment that goes over the head and down to the ankles, so as not to show a woman's hair or figure.

"We have nothing. I don't know how we are going to rebuild our lives," she added.

In the nearby village of Hamidiyeh, farmer Jasem, 26, looked out at what was his once his livelihood.

His family had spent decades building their family home and toiling on arable land. Now they fear they will never rebuild what they have lost.

Jasem said he will move to the capital Tehran, some 600 miles from where he has spent his entire life, and try to find work in a restaurant.

Twelve percent of the country's land is agricultural, like that which once proved so fertile for Jasem and his family.

Blame game

Amid desperation, the all-too-familiar blame game between two old enemies has continued.

Iran has blamed U.S. sanctions for hampering relief efforts.

"The heads of the American regime have revealed their true vicious and inhuman nature," President Hassan Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting screened live on state TV, according to Al Jazeera.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the Iranian government.

"These floods once again show the level of Iranian regime mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness," he said in a statement earlier this month.

"The regime blames outside entities when, in fact, it is their mismanagement that has led to this disaster."

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The Red Crescent are doing what they can to reach these often rural communities devastated by the floods, but damaged infrastructure has hampered their mobility.

An aging helicopter bought by Iran before the 1979 revolution allows them to reach Lorestan province, a mountainous region in the country's west.

Because of U.S. sanctions, Iran has been unable obtain parts for the aircraft over the last 40 years. Instead they have almost entirely rebuilt the choppers themselves.

From the air, the scope and scale of the devastation are clear. What looked like massive lakes were actually vast villages and farmlands.

Nasser, 81, a taxi driver in Khorramabad, the capital of Lorestan province, told NBC News: "I have lived here my whole life and have never seen anything like this."

In the city of Pol-e-dokhtar soldiers from the army and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) are leading the clean-up operation.

Alongside clerics and volunteers they clear rubble, divert water, build dykes and distribute food, medicine and tents.

One of the guards at a temporary station saw a van passing by with IRGC members on board carrying shovels. "Come and get some food, terrorists," he shouted, an apparent reference to their recent designation as a foreign terrorist organisation by the Trump administration.

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This had seemingly become an ongoing joke among the group's members.

But the city's residents were in no mood for jokes.

Uncertain futures

Frustrated at the recovery effort, many pressed themselves against the gates of the Red Crescent building screaming that they didn't have enough food, medicine or tents.

Some of those gathered in hope of aid had not been affected by the floods.

Two women in their 60s, Sultaneh Imani and Shamsi Malekipoor, traveled from a nearby village despite being fortunate enough to escape the worst of the floods. Life was already so difficult, they told NBC News, that they were hoping get something, anything, from the aid group to help them get by.

Poverty and discontent with the government run deep among some here, with the economy already struggling before the weather intervened.

Many Iranians feel they haven't seen the economic benefits of the Obama-era nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew last year. While it allowed Tehran to sell its crude oil and natural gas on the international market, Iran's economy remains weak with high unemployment and inflation.

For those who were already struggling, the floods have left many hopeless.

Flooding in a graveyard near Ahwaz, Iran.
Flooding in a graveyard near Ahwaz, Iran.Ali Arouzi

A few miles from Pol-e-dokhtar, the small village of Baba Zeyd has only 530 residents. Once a breadbasket for the area, rich in vegetables and crops, it is now almost entirely destroyed. Its residents were in a state of shock.

"Mother Nature cried for two weeks and we almost drowned in her tears," said Mahin Fathi, a grandmother sitting outside the wreckage of her home.

Her neighbor, the local lawyer, was angry.

His home gone and his family's livelihood washed away, Khashayar Javadi told NBC News that the land was so badly damaged they won't be able to sow crops or vegetables for years to come.

The government has offered small interest-free loans to help villagers rebuild their homes, but Javadi wondered how they could pay the loans back with no prospect of making money anytime soon.

"Our homes have been destroyed, our farmlands and livestock washed away," said Radoul, a farmer from the village. "I have no idea how we are going to make money. This was once a great place to live but now the future is uncertain, without prospects."