Beirut is still coming to terms with the sheer magnitude of destruction set off by Tuesday’s monster blast at the port. Streets are strewn with shattered glass, mangled storefronts, smashed up cars, splintered trees. Building exteriors are ravaged, beams and shutters twisted out of shape, metal frames dangling in mid-air. Those lucky enough spent Tuesday evening cleaning up their gutted apartments. Today shop owners are sweeping out the debris from their stores, separating the salvageable from the unsalvageable, while drills and measuring tapes begin what repairs are immediately possible. But the total damage across the city is likely mammoth.
Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud put the cost at $3 billion. Speaking to The Daily Star, Lebanese economist Jad Chaaban likened today’s destruction to the 2006 War, estimating that total damage to be at least half what was sustained in 2006, around $3 billion to $4 billion. ”We have both direct and indirect damage,” he explained. ”The direct is the physical destruction, to public and private infrastructure and the assets destroyed. The Beirut Port alone may be several billion,” Chaaban estimated, referring to the destruction of warehouses, equipment, cranes, public and private machinery in the port by the sheer scale of the explosion. This, along with widespread property destruction believed to have affected half the city, makes the immediate damage alone staggering.
”I would not want to give an estimate right now,” said a source at Nasco Insurance Group speaking on condition of anonymity, ”but the exposure is big.” Another source said it was impossible to measure the liability until the precise cause of the blast was ascertained, but that coverage would be greater if it were shown the blast was an attack. Yet while sky-rises, malls, hospitals and other large-scale buildings have insurance, the source expressed concern with the lack of coverage among more traditional housing in Beirut. These concerns are exacerbated by the city governor’s estimate that 300,000 Beirut residents have been left homeless by the blast.
The indirect damage, the loss of income, businesses’ suspensions and closures could not have come at a worse time and makes further economic depression inevitable. Chaaban estimates that the port’s closure alone, the conduit for the vast majority of Lebanese imports, will mean several million lost a month and predicts logistical difficulties accessing supplies in the short run.
However Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon’s Customs’ authority, sounded a more positive note in conversation with The Daily Star. ”The port terminal is now safe,” he claimed, saying only the warehouses and silos holding general cargo (livestock, wheat, vegetables) were destroyed, but that the terminal where containers are unloaded and making up 85 percent of volume trade could be operational as soon as Wednesday, pending “technical issues.” Daher expressed confidence that the port of Tripoli could facilitate the general cargo diverted from Beirut.
Wherever the truth lies, it is clear that the destruction in the port and elsewhere is beyond Lebanon’s ability to repair, considering its dire economic health. ”There are no funds for regular reconstruction, no compensation mechanism,” Chaaban said. ”In previous times, when inflation was under control and a good exchange rate, a compensation mechanism would work,” he continued, referring to the state aid people received after the 2006 War that helped them to rebuild their properties and resume their livelihoods. But Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis and the scarcity of dollars bar people from accessing the raw materials needed to rebuild such as aluminum and glass.
”Lebanon is not a local or national crisis any longer, it is an international crisis,” affirmed former World Bank Director Jamal Saghir, in conversation with The Daily Star. ”There is a huge economic cost and the Lebanese government does not have the capacity to rebuild.” Explaining postdisaster management procedures, Saghir expressed surprise that the Lebanese government had not requested an international damage assessment from the World Bank, adding that only international agencies can provide what’s needed. ”The government will not be able to handle procurement of the raw materials needed for reconstruction, so the international agencies will handle this,” predicted Saghir, adding that the international community would need to be innovative in how it grants aid in order to dodge the funding sink hole that is the legacy of successive Lebanese governments.
Chaaban agrees that the Lebanese government cannot be relied upon and international assistance is the only way. ”We may be a nation of survivors,” admitted Chaaban, ”but there is no credible government. Transparent procurement of the raw materials needed to rebuild is not possible without humanitarian support,” insisted Chaaban, stressing that such efforts should operate outside the realms of the Lebanese government. ”If you want to help Lebanon, don’t go through the government and to hell with what they think about their sovereignty.”
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