Six months after the Beirut port explosion: reflections from a first responder

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Georges Kettaneh, Secretary-General, Lebanese Red Cross

• The Beirut port explosion overwhelmed the Lebanese Red Cross despite its crisis experience.

• The LRC had to adjust its aid measures to meet local sensitivities.

• The toll of successive crises is causing a Lebanese mental-health epidemic.

At 18.07 on 4 August last year, the clocks in Beirut stopped. Two huge explosions shattered the port and the area around it. Two hundred people lost their lives, 10,000 lost their houses, and the entire country was in shock.

Six months on from the port explosions, we know the effects will last for years to come. But for myself and my colleagues at the Lebanese Red Cross, who were among the first on the scene, there are lessons to be learnt that will help ensure a preventable disaster like this never happens again.

1. Preparation is key for dealing with unforeseen events

Soon after the blasts, my mobile phone started ringing. Injured people were calling, urging us to rescue them. We deployed all ambulances and teams in and around Beirut, and mobilized all available resources from across the country to assist in the response.

However, in the affected area, many roads were blocked by the rubble of the collapsed buildings. Ambulances couldn’t reach the affected areas. Emergency medical technicians could hear people screaming for help, but they were not able to reach them quickly enough. It was a waking nightmare, with so many people in need and we unable to save them.

Even in the worst disasters that had hit Lebanon over the past decades, we had more time to react. The injuries did not happen all at once. Never before did we have to deal with more than 6,000 wounded in the same instant.

Our teams did manage to treat or transport more than 2,600 wounded people in the hours after the blast, and to provide thousands of blood units to hospitals to help them treat the wounded. But the needs were so great and even with all our resources, it was not enough.

We at the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) have more than 40 years of experience in preparing for and managing emergencies and crises all over the country. Our experience in disaster preparedness covers civil war, invasion, floods, earthquakes and much more.

But this was something we never imagined would happen. In two minutes, the explosion caused enormous devastation beyond imagination. People lost their lives, homes, loved ones. When we went to the streets to assess needs, we already found bodies lying on the ground.

2. Digital culture is saving people but putting them also at risk

During a crisis of this scale, you see the worst of humanity and the best as well.

People started helping each other immediately, however they could. A clear example of that was when we asked the public through online channels to donate blood to fill the skyrocketing need of the people injured. Within 10 hours, we collected 1,500 blood bags. In the end, we had to turn blood donors away.

The Beirut port explosion proved once more that what Lebanon’s most valuable resource in a crisis is: its people. In a country that co-habits with crisis, we need to build a generation of “ready-to-respond humanitarians”. Investing in people’s knowledge and skills on how to prepare for disasters and crises should be an essential topic in all curriculums for all ages.

We need to build a culture of disaster preparedness and response. This is more important now than ever before as the current digital culture makes people run towards a crisis to film it or to go live on social media instead of remaining at a safe distance, protecting themselves, and helping in a safe and organized way. Unfortunately, many people lost their lives while they were on balconies filming the first blast, instead of taking shelter.

3. Mental health is as much a priority as physical health

Lebanese people been going through so many challenges since late last year. The blast came on top of the COVID-19 crisis, economic deprivation, unemployment, demonstrations and unrest. I believe many of the Lebanese people, if not the majority, are suffering from some kind of mental-health crisis such as anxiety or depression.

We at the LRC are part of this community, and we feel its pain and challenges. All of our volunteers need psychological support, as all the Lebanese people do. Our staff and volunteers, similar to everyone else, like to project a positive image of themselves and their mental well-being. But six months on, we are still shaken to our bones and taking it day by day, doing the best we can, while not knowing what the future holds for our country.

The economic impact of the Beirut port explosions
The economic impact of the Beirut port explosions. Image: Arabian Business

4. Listening to the community is key

Since the blast happened, we have been adjusting our operations to fit the community’s needs and culture. For example, the community affected by the blast would not accept to go to the distribution points on the streets to collect the relief items we wanted to give them. Culturally, this was very hard for them.

In one case, we had 400 boxes of food supplies to distribute. Only 100 people came to the collection points; most of them were not Lebanese. Then we realized that we needed to adjust our plan to respect how the community feels about receiving help. Instead of distributing the supplies in public, we decided to go door-to-door distributing the items even if it meant more work for our volunteers. People were happy then to receive this aid, because they felt their dignity was preserved.

We then took this further and decided to transition to financial aid – allowing people to buy what they need from the local economy, preventing it from being damaged by external aid supplies. We started providing direct financial assistance to more than 10,000 families, thereby allowing them to decide for themselves what their priority needs are.

5. Deep wounds ignite strong hope

When you walk in the streets of Beirut, you still see small pieces of glass from the shattered windows on the floor, in the corners of the pavements. They represent the deep wounds in our souls that we need to live with.

I’ve seen a lot of disasters in my life, but this one was utterly different. No one can imagine something like this. In a fraction of a second, people lost their family, homes and work; they were injured, terrified, haggard. We all lost something from our heart that night, and nothing will be like before.

The only thing that will remain the same is that we will continue going above and beyond to help our community. We will continue investing in our volunteers and staff to rise to continuous challenges. We will continue preparing ourselves to respond to crisis, and coordinating with others to complete the work, as only together can we reduce the risks and people’s suffering.

6. With COVID-19, ‘auxiliary’ roles become ‘primary’

The expression, “When it rains, it pours” describes the situation in Lebanon nowadays. In addition to the economic crisis, civil unrest, we are witnessing high numbers of COVID-19 infections. Currently, the LRC hotline receives more than 4,000 calls every day, related mostly to coronavirus patients. Since February 2020, LRC has transported more than 16,000 COVID-19 patients to hospitals.

Our operators answer the hotline, 24 hours seven days a week. They told me that the callers have gone from, “Hello, I have symptoms” to “Hello, everyone at home has symptoms” to “Hello, I see my father turning blue trying to breathe. I can’t find him a bed at hospital. Please help us.”

In response to the lack of available beds in hospitals, LRC has launched an initiative to provide home oxygen machines to COVID-19 patients who can’t find a place in a hospital.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

With more than 132 million people worldwide requiring humanitarian assistance, humanitarian responses must become more efficient and effective at delivering aid to those who need it most.

Cash assistance has been recognized as a faster and more effective form of humanitarian aid compared to in-kind assistance such as food, clothing or education. Cash transfers give more control to their beneficiaries, allowing them to prioritize their own needs. They also have a proven track record of fostering entrepreneurialism and boosting local economies.

When the UN Secretary-General issued a call for innovative ways to improve cash-based humanitarian assistance, the World Economic Forum responded by bringing together 18 organizations to create guidelines for public-private cooperation on humanitarian cash transfers.

The guidelines are outlined in the Principles on Public-Private Cooperation in Humanitarian Payments and show how the public and private sectors can work together to deliver digital cash payments quickly and securely to crisis-affected populations. Since its publication in 2016, the report has served as a valuable resource for organizations, humanitarian agencies and government leaders seeking to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and advance financial inclusion.

Learn more about this project and find out how you can join the Forum to get involved in initiatives that are helping millions of lives every day.

When humanitarian crisis escalates, all hands need to be on deck. Even if initially our role should be only auxiliary, we are now doing more than we used to. By the day, the number of Lebanese people who need assistance is increasing. We need all the support possible – now more than ever.

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