Academics in Beirut aren’t convinced their caretaker government is prepared to coordinate the massive clean-up needed after the huge explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital’s port area and showered toxic dust over large swaths of the city.
So in a matter of days after the August 4 blast, faculty members, mostly from the American University of Beirut, quickly organized four teams under the name “Khaddit Beirut” (“Beirut blast”), to help the city claw its way back to normal.
Najat A. Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, was one of the organizers.
At 6 p.m. on August 4, Saliba was on a Zoom call with several colleagues. Suddenly her fifth-floor apartment, in a suburb about seven kilometers from the port, shook in what Saliba assumed was a mild earthquake.
Moments later she felt an enormous blast. “I hugged my husband and we ran into the bathroom, thinking, like during the civil war, that was the safest place.”
The next day she and a friend went to the area near the port and walked amid the rubble and roped-off buildings in danger of collapse. Saliba, who specializes in atmospheric chemistry, became increasingly anxious thinking about the respiratory illness, cancers and other diseases that exposure to the toxic dust has caused after previous disasters, like the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center towers in the September 2001 terror attack.
Already exhausted and demoralized from Lebanon’s severe, yearlong financial crisis, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, Beirutis are now faced with a third, totally unexpected calamity.
Confronting an Array of Challenges
“We felt angry and helpless,” Saliba says, convinced the authorities would do little to protect people from the risks, just as for years they had reportedly ignored repeated pleas from port officials to move the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that finally exploded.