Beirut port explosion devastates Lebanon, amid food and financial crisis

According to aid workers on the ground, the catastrophic explosion in Lebanese capital Beirut’s largest port has plunged a country already facing food insecurity, economic crisis and COVID into utter devastation.

The blast killed more than 100 people, with another 5,000 sustaining injuries. It has left thousands homeless and destroyed a major granary where a significant amount of the country’s food – already scarce – was stored.

Aid Work in the Middle East

According to news reports, the blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a highly explosive fertiliser – which had been improperly stored in a hangar.

“The one thing that is clear … is that a country already on the brink of economic collapse is now made even worse.” – Jeremy Courtney, Preemptive Love

“We’re trying to figure out and trying to wait to understand what has actually happened, but the impact of it is clear,” Jeremy Courtney, CEO and Founder of Preemptive Love said in a video released soon after the blast occurred.

“You watch videos and you literally see the wave of energy wipe out houses after house, apartment after apartment and blowing out windows, blowing out kitchens, collapsing balconies.

“You see cars decimated on the side of the road, windshields shattered, not from debris, but from air pressure changes. So this explosion, and then the secondary explosion, have both taken place at the port that serves as the main entryway for so much oil and food that comes into Beirut and greater Lebanon.”

Courtney and his wife Jessica founded Preemptive Love after moving to Iraq in the middle of the 2003-2011 war, to serve families affected by the war in Iraq and Syria (Eternity covered their story here).

Preemptive Love team member Michel Tannous recorded a video from the balcony of his Beirut home with smoke from the exploded port in the background.

“The port is totally destroyed and we were already [running] out of gas and fuel so we will no longer have power or bread or nothing from the basics we need, but this explosion made it happen in a split second,” Tannous said.

“We’re a small country. We are too small to create all of our own foods. We rely on the exports of others. We rely on this port for food.” – Michel Tannous, Preemptive Love

In a following video filmed later that night, Tannous explained that economic and political tensions have seen the country’s currency drop significantly, making food extremely expensive and scarce. Fuel is limited. And, even prior to COVID, Lebanon was experiencing high unemployment rates of up to 60 per cent.

“But what happened here today is beyond devastating. Everything that was hard to get before is now near impossible. This is not just another bombing in the Middle East. This is a bombing that impacts the entire country. We’re a small country. We are too small to create all of our own foods. We rely on the exports of others. We rely on this port for food. And in a moment, it has been taken from us.”

Courtney says: “Our very staff in Lebanon has been preparing for famine, and now you’re talking about wiping out the port that served as a main gateway for food and oil gas to come into the country.”

“The one thing that is clear … is that a country already on the brink of economic collapse is now made even worse. And these are often the events that precipitate formal outbreaks of war. When we wring our hands sometime in the future and say, ‘how did it get to be so bad?’ this is one of those moments we will have to look back at – and the months before this and the months before this. But looking back right now, we’ll have to ask, ‘Did we do what we could?”

In a further blow to those affected, Courtney says many of the aid agencies which would usually be positioned to respond, are not in the country as a result of COVID-related complications.

“Lebanon is typically a country that is full of aid organisations, often working among Syrians, but due to COVID, many of them are gone,” he says. “Many of them, their budgets have been slashed or their staff have been sent home for fear of getting trapped in the COVID lockdown.

“So much of the sector that might be otherwise willing and able to respond is also gone right now.”

As of last night in Beirut, Courtney’s team had begun its work, using what Courtney described as “blueprints” of disaster response developed through involvement with previous regional disasters.

The Preemptive Love Beirut team posted this update:

World Vision Lebanon is another aid organisation that is on the ground, with local staff labelling the blast one of the “most difficult events the country has ever had to deal with”.

Two World Vision staff received minor injuries in the explosion and are in a stable condition.

“The blast has shaken not just Beirut, but the whole country. World Vision has worked in Lebanon since 1975, both with the local population and a significant number of Syrian refugees,” said World Vision Lebanon’s Communications Manager Josephine Haddad (who told Eternity about that work in December 2018).

Haddad described the scenes and outlined the country’s ongoing crisis in this video posted on Twitter.

The head of World Vision Lebanon, Hans Bederski, said: “We are concerned for the health and safety of the people in Lebanon, especially all of those injured. We pray for their fast recovery, and for the souls of those who have passed away in this tragic blast.”

In a sign of humanity and solidarity, the hashtag #OurHomesAreHome began circulating in Arabic and English on social media – with ordinary citizens in Beirut opening their homes to the approximately 300,000 who have been left homeless.

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