BEIRUT: In Karantina, Jamil Mekkawi looked around his family's furniture workshop in despair. The room was dark except for streams of light that shone through gaping holes in the walls.
The ceiling was partially collapsed; rubble lay scattered on the floor, some of it on top of beds they had recently made for hospitals treating coronavirus patients.
Mekkawi’s brother had lived upstairs, but now the flat lay in ruins and his brother had been forced to move out of the neighborhood. The workshop. Staring helplessly at the destruction, Mekkawi said he had no idea when or if the workshop, which has been in the family since 1964, would ever be workable again.
Repairing buildings like Mekkawi’s is a mammoth challenge for NGOs and volunteers that have led the charge since the explosion at Beirut Port on Aug. 4.
“Unfortunately, it’s bigger than all the previous work we’ve done,” said Marc Tarabay, whose organization The Joy of Giving rebuilt homes after the 2006 War with Israel. The organization has been assessing the impact of the blast on buildings in the affected areas.
“About 30 to 40 percent of buildings in Karantina have long-term structural damage,” Tarabay said, which he said meant both buildings whose walls had cracks or missing parts as well as buildings whose skeleton frame was damaged.
The cost of repairing buildings, even those only moderately damaged, will be enormous, according to Ghaida Nawam, whose charity Nusaned mend old neglected homes in Lebanon.
Audibly exhausted, Nawam, having just returned from Gemmayzeh, said the cost of replacing broken glass in homes would generally be around $1,000. Nawam added that some homes that hadn’t sustained structural damage would still need thousands of dollars to repair.
“All the glass and aluminum are imported,” she said. “Importers want fresh dollars.”
The Lebanese pound has lost roughly 80 percent of its value against the dollar since last year, and consequently the cost of imported goods has skyrocketed in the local currency. This means that thousands of homes are in need of costly repairs at a time when many in Lebanon are struggling to make ends meet.
Speaking over the phone, Taina Christiansen, head of the Lebanon program at UN-Habitat, said at least 60,000 homes had been damaged, ranging from shattered windows to collapsed buildings.
The scale of the damage means huge amounts of money, workers, and materials need to be mustered quickly.
Christiansen said some buildings were still at risk of collapse and they needed to be identified as quickly as possible. The weather also adds to the urgency of rebuilding Beirut's buildings.
“We're racing against time before the rain comes,” Tarabay said, noting that heavy downpours exacerbate the weaknesses of vulnerable buildings, making the repair process that much harder.
Fortunately, August is the driest month of the year in Lebanon but from November there are frequent heavy downpours of rain.
Of course, the homes need to be repaired quickly for the sake of the residents whose lives have been turned upside-down in the explosion.
Rawan Khayat, head of Borderless NGO, said that her organization had recently found 17 people sleeping in a two-bedroom flat in Karantina after the explosion destroyed their homes. She said that in poorer neighborhoods like Karantina many people preferred to stay within their community rather than seek shelter further away.
Thankfully NGOs are receiving help from abroad. On Aug. 10 $297 million in short-term aid was raised at an online international donor conference hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron. Donors at the conference in a statement promised to deliver the money directly to the people in Lebanon.
Nawam said international NGOs had carried out a rapid assessment of which local organizations they should work with, adding that this type of assessment usually took months but had been completed in just three days.
Tarabay expressed his belief that due to an outpouring of generosity domestically and internationally the vast majority of homes in Karantina would be livable within three months.
He added that he was optimistic due to wealthy donors who had contacted his organization and also due to the sheer number of volunteers.
“We’ve had 8,000 people volunteer in 48 hours. The solidarity of the young people in Lebanon is incredible,” Tarabay said.