Lebanon: Chemical Explosion Beirut Port (2020)
On 4 August 2020, a huge explosion rocked the city of Beirut, shattering glass and causing extensive structural damage. Hundreds of people were killed, and many thousands injured. This case study presents the key elements of the Lebanese Red Cross response to this disaster, and aims to raise awareness of technological and biological (CBRN) hazards.
The unprecedented explosion affected a densely urbanized area which is, in many ways, the heart and soul of Beirut. The blast resulted from the accidental ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in the Beirut Port area under wholly inadequate conditions.
The disaster occurred in what was already a very difficult and complicated context, at a time when three overlapping crises already beset Lebanon: stresses due to the Syrian refugee situation; pervasive political instability and worsening economic conditions, leading to social unrest; and, challenges posed by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
The Beirut Port explosion also severely damaged two of the city’s five hospitals – one of which was a dedicated COVID-19 facility and led in turn to an explosion in COVID-19 cases. These compound disasters have stretched the city’s overall emergency capacity to its limits. Yet the tragic irony is that man-made disasters can often be mitigated or prevented.
- Over 200 deaths and 6,000 people injured.
- 300,000 people displaced due to damaged and destroyed homes across Greater Beirut.
- Surge in COVID-19 cases post-blast.
- Two of five Beirut hospitals damaged (one of which
was acting as a COVID-19 facility).
- Two Lebanese Red Cross branches and three ambulances destroyed. Headquarters building damaged. Two Blood Transfusion Centres damaged. Local staff and volunteers affected.
Note on toxicity following the Beirut Port explosion
One of the primary concerns immediately following the disaster related to the potentially toxic substances released (or in danger of release) by the explosion, and subsequent fires. Teams of CBRN and environmental experts were immediately deployed to assess the situation. The Lebanese Red Cross’s (LRC) dedicated CBRN team played a central role in this process. A number of awareness-raising campaigns were undertaken to provide guidance to clean-up teams and the general public.
Within seconds of the blast, the LRC emergency hotline was inundated with thousands of calls. The actual magnitude of the disaster became clear within the first half-hour: despite its extensive experience of disasters and civil war, this situation was beyond anything LRC had ever dealt with before.
LRC emergency response included:
- Treatment and transport of more than 2,600 wounded.
- Evacuation of damaged hospitals and transport of COVID-19 patients.
- Distribution of more than 1,200 blood units to hospital within 48 hours.
- Setting up of emergency shelters for 1,000 families.
- Distribution of ready meals, food parcels & hygiene kits to over 23,000 people.
- Initiation of a Multi-Sector Needs Assessment (MSNA).
- Provision of an unconditional cash grant of USD 300 to 1,000 households.
Data up to 9 November 2020
The homes of many residents were destroyed or badly damaged by the blast, leaving an estimated 300,000 people without adequate shelter. Based on the multi-sector needs assessment results, LRC increased the scope of its activities to provide unconditional cash and voucher assistance (CVA) to 10,000 families over a period of six months. In addition to the CVA programme, LRC has been focusing on providing:
- Basic assistance to up to 10,000 families for at least 3 months (includes food parcels, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and shelter).
- Primary healthcare and medicine through three mobile medical units and four fixed primary health centres.
- Psychosocial services and referrals.
- Ambulance services in the blast area, as well as COVID-19 and regular ambulance missions across the country.
- Blood unit collection and distribution to hospitals.
- A new Mobile Medical Team initiative, targeting the most vulnerable at household level.
Overview of Lebanese Red Cross assistance to 8 November 2020
- Over 250,000 people helped
- 8,278 families receiving direct cash assistance
- 43,021 household assessments completed
- 4,536 COVID missions completed
- The country was already struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and protocols could not easily be followed after the explosion:
- medical facilities providing isolation and care for confirmed cases were damaged;
- displaced people had to shelter in close proximity to many others, rendering physical distancing impossible.
- The injuries sustained from the explosion and the subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases are stretching LRC ambulance and health services to capacity.
- The healthcare system was already over-burdened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Continued access to essential health services and medicine remain critical issues, especially since few people in Lebanon benefit from an adequate social safety net.
- As the overall economic situation deteriorates, many will be unable to afford even basic healthcare.
- This will further stretch LRC’s resources, as demand for free primary healthcare continues to increase.
- The explosion occurred at a time of on-going political, economic, and social instability.
- There is concern about price increases, and reports of shortages and hoarding, especially of medication.
- Many have lost their possessions, homes, businesses, and livelihoods following the explosion.
- This is exacerbating an already tense and challenging situation for the majority of Lebanese, as well as for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the country.
- LRC has also felt the impact, due to:
- a large year-on-year increase in demand for its services (blood supply provision to hospitals, and health care);
- the loss of a substantial annual government contribution representing 30% of its budget.
- The NS must continue to meet on-going needs, as well as those brought about by the port explosion and the spike in COVID-19 cases.
- These and other socio-economic factors are straining LRC’s capacity to respond, and potentially eroding the value of the assistance it is able to offer.