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Blast plunges Beirut into homelessness, health care crisis

The massive explosion in Beirut that killed hundreds and injured thousands of people has created new crises in the city. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports on the new homelessness and health care crisis in a country already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and a spiraling economy.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The massive port explosion that killed scores and injured thousands in Beirut, Lebanon this month has also created a healthcare and homelessness crisis in a city that was already experiencing strains due to COVID-19. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen has the story. A warning to our viewers, some of the images are disturbing.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    At 6.08 pm, a sudden blast devastated East Beirut. The explosion destroyed Geitaoui hospital, decimating its emergency room and intensive care unit. But that didn't stop the wounded and dying flooding through its doors.

    The makeshift ER extended out into the parking lot. Many doctors and nurses who had gone home for the day rushed back to the hospital to help. Moustapha Al Moula was one of them.

  • Moustapha Al Moulal:

    It was an absolute bloodbath. I mean we had injuries, I couldn't even put their faces together, didn't even know where the patient's airways were.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Working with what they could salvage from the destruction, staff also had to treat their injured colleagues.

    On the night of the blast, many doctors were injured and so they immediately set to healing each other so they could then work on patients. They sutured their wound and each other without anesthetic to stitch up these wounds, and this is from an emergency staple gun which is a fast way of sealing a wound quickly to stop the bleeding so they could move on to other patients.

    They did what they could, performing emergency surgery in the makeshift ER with the operating theatre in pieces. The specialist COVID-19 unit was also shattered. Its sterilized waiting area became a temporary morgue for the bodies of those they couldn't save.

    With the hospital falling apart, patients were evacuated using cars, scooters, and whatever could carry them. Many came here, to LAU Rizk Hospital, damaged but still functional.

    Dr. Michel Mawad rushed in to find a scene of horror. There aren't even records for most of the wounded; in the chaos, doctors resorted to writing names and vital statistics on patients' bare skin. Lebanon's health care system was already under strain thanks to a crippling economic downturn, unable to get hold of essential equipment and supplies.

    Across the city, charities have set up mobile clinics like this one to try to bridge the gap in care.

  • Oumayma Farah:

    After the explosion, the healthcare system was heavily affected. The 5 major hospitals in the area were heavily damaged as well as 12 primary healthcare centers.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    They offer full-service healthcare and provide essential medicines; Lebanon's main drugs depot was blown up in the explosion, leaving the country with a severe shortage.

  • Oumayma Farah:

    What we would usually use in 2 weeks, we're giving out in one day.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The clinic has also been treating blast injuries to lessen the load on the semi-functioning hospitals. But many of those injured will need far more serious ongoing care.

    Almost 7000 people were wounded; around 1,500 are still in intensive care. Dr. Mawad estimates a quarter of those at the hospital that night have been left with life-changing injuries, including loss of eyes, amputated limbs and brain damage.

  • Dr. Michel Mawad:

    The vast majority of the injuries were the head, skull. So because of that sudden increase of pressure in the head a lot of them blew up. On top of that, there was flying glass injuries and some of the shards penetrated the skull and got into the brain itself.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Naji Makhlouf sustained severe head injuries. The doctors say he should regain full bodily control, but they won't know the full extent of his brain injury until the swelling goes down. Then he could face reduced processing ability, communication challenges and memory loss. And his is one of the more moderate cases.

    But the devastation wrought on Naji and his wife Nicole's lives has been anything but moderate. They also lost their house in the blast. Once Naji is well enough to leave the hospital, they face the overwhelming task of finding somewhere to live while they find the money to rebuild their home.

    Theirs is one of the worst damaged areas of Beirut, less than a kilometer from the port. The explosion shattered this close-knit community, leaving thousands of families who called these destroyed buildings home unsure if they can ever return.

    The Metris live a few blocks down, not far from the blast's epicenter. None of the family were in the house when the explosion happened. Their roof caved in completely. They've been living here since the blast, desperate to try and hold on to what remains of the home they have lived in all their lives.

  • Camil Mitri:

    When it rained, all the rain came on us. But we can't leave it, it's our home.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    How much have you managed to save of your belongings?

  • Camil Mitri:

    Not a lot.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Do you have insurance?

  • Camil Mitri:

    Yes, but they don't do anything. You know, Lebanon, this is it.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's a familiar story. Residents across Beirut say that the authorities have done nothing for them. In their absence, groups of volunteers are taking on the task of trying to get this ravaged city back on its feet.

    Just meters from Camil's house, these young engineers and architects are hatching a plan to rebuild Beirut. Those made homeless can come and register their house's location on a map. Each day, the volunteers walk the streets for hours, visiting and assessing the registered properties.

    The grassroots collective gathering donations of building materials and buying what it can at cost, hoping to get construction underway as soon as possible.

    Their organization and ambition is impressive. But the reality is, with more than 8,000 damaged buildings in the area, assessing and rebuilding each will take months, maybe years. And in the immediate aftermath sympathy is high; as the world moves on, the money may soon run out.

    And then there are those, like Victoria and her mother, who will never be able to return home, their buildings fractured beyond repair.

    These cracks extend through every wall of the building all the way down to the foundations.

    This is their home. They don't know where to go. And facing homelessness and unemployment, Victoria is also coping with the lasting trauma of the blast.

  • Victoria Toumajean:

    Since that day, I have …shaking hands The NGOs are coming and they are offering houses but the houses are for one month or two months maximum, after that you have to pay the rent and we are not working. How we are going to pay the rent?"

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Like many in this beleaguered city, already coping with job losses, a crippled economy and few basic services even before the explosion, Victoria feels this tragedy has finally broken her.

  • Victoria Toumajean:

    They made us lose our jobs and we stayed quiet. The dollar rate increased and we stayed quiet. Now our homes are destroyed, our friends are dead.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It is hard to overestimate the devastation this man-made catastrophe has wrought. As the dust clears and the dead are buried, now the living must begin to rebuild what they can of their shattered lives.

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