(Above) An aerial view is shown of the Beirut Port, completely destroyed. Photo by diplomedia
By Kristina Hayden
A horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut, Aug. 4, shocked the world and resulted in widespread devastation to the surrounding neighborhoods in a country already plagued by economic, security, and political instability due to decades of government mismanagement exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the blast caused at least 181 deaths, thousands of injuries, billions of dollars’ worth of property damage, and the displacement of approximately 300,000 people. The explosion registered 3.3 on the seismic scale and was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel, and parts of Europe, and was even heard more than 100 miles away in Cyprus. The investigation into what sparked a detonation of this magnitude is ongoing, although the information available to date indicates that approximately 2,750 tons of incorrectly stored ammonium nitrate exploded.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Embassy Beirut accounted for all Mission personnel and assessed the well-being of their locally employed staff. The American Citizen Services (ACS) team also quickly coordinated with the embassy’s Citizen Liaison Volunteers for timely updates to the large U.S. citizen population in Lebanon. They reached out to government and hospital contacts to support Americans in need. Among the assisted American citizens was an individual who was trapped in rubble, whose injuries required life-saving medical attention. As of early September, ACS reported that 27 Americans were injured and three were killed as a result of the blast. While consular colleagues were hard at work supporting U.S. citizens, the Health Unit and Community Liaison Office organized a blood drive in partnership with the Lebanese Red Cross. Offices throughout the Mission collaborated to provide details from key contacts on the unfolding situation, including immediate humanitarian needs.
Ambassador Dorothy Shea led the interagency effort on the ground to provide immediate U.S. humanitarian assistance which included the mobilization of five U.S. C-17 military aircraft carrying pallets of potable water, medical supplies, and nearly 300,000 meals-ready-to-eat.
“The United States continues to stand with the people of Lebanon, especially now, as you respond to the horrific explosion of August 4 and all of the massive destruction it brought,” said Shea. “I am proud to report that the United States has already pledged over $15 million in emergency aid that will be arriving over the coming days, and we expect additional assistance announcements in the very near future. Now, more than ever, we echo our motto of ‘in this together.’”
Under the leadership of the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, the U.S. government also deployed an interagency Foreign Emergency Support Team of subject matter experts to Beirut, the weekend following the blast. The team included experts from the Department, USAID, the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense, among others. The team was tasked with providing support in assessing damages and providing recommendations for medium to long-term assistance. They also gave the embassy the resources needed to respond quickly. At the request of the government of Lebanon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation played a key role assisting the host government with their investigation into the explosion. Meanwhile, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team focused on reducing the social and economic impact of the disaster in coordination with stateside USAID functional and regional bureaus and other U.S. government agencies.
High-level visitors helped raise the profile of USG response efforts and highlighted the connection between the American and Lebanese people. USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa arrived in Lebanon, August 10, to assess the situation firsthand and joined Ambassador Shea in receiving seven medical kits destined for the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University for distribution to various clinics and hospitals in need—each kit serves up to 10,000 people for three months. Additionally, Barsa participated in the embassy’s blood donation drive, visited the port, and spoke to local partners about how to increase assistance to the Lebanese people.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale traveled to Lebanon to express condolences to the Lebanese people on behalf of the American people, Aug. 13. A key component of Hale’s visit was a trip to the NGO “base camp” in Mar Mikhael, where he met with volunteers who provide a wide range of services to affected populations.
“Lebanon has been a big part of my life for many decades, and seeing the magnitude of this tragedy is really profoundly moving,” Hale said while addressing the press. “But just as profoundly moving is what I just heard today from the volunteers at this site, who are putting aside their daily jobs, [they] are committed to working in collaboration with NGOs from across the spectrum in Lebanon to meet the emergency needs of the people of this area. And that is really encouraging.”
Kristina Hayden is a public affairs officer at Embassy Beirut.