The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Storm causes chaos at earthquake-readiness exercise

- By Gasia Trtrian

BAABDA, Lebanon: Sirens blare in Baabda’s streets as ambulances, police cars and fire trucks burst out in a single trail, dashing past security checkpoint­s and cordoning off roads. A subtle explosion is heard in the distance.

“It’s off-limits! I’m losing my voice repeating this. Just take a turn from there!” a security officer shouts to redirect traffic.

Emergency lights flash blue and red. Red Cross responders and firefighte­rs rush to the scene of an abandoned building, smoke rising from its unglazed windows. Over 15 people are trapped inside – but they’re volunteers, and this is just an earthquake drill.

The fire truck extends its ladder to the sixth floor, and a firefighte­r helps two men descend from the derelict structure, now engulfed in flames.

A man on the upper floors waves a blue shirt and shouts for help, drawing a round of laughter from a crowd of spectators – Lebanese Army soldiers, Internal Security Forces personnel and municipali­ty representa­tives – standing behind a barricade of yellow tape.

More “rescuees” step down from the ladder, their clothes covered with smoky ash and faces painted with shades of purple. One of them limps to the corner, coughing on the way before kneeling on the ground.

“Look at him, he’s a good actor,” an ISF officer says.

The survivors line up next to an ambulance, while Red Cross volunteers write down their names, ages and other personal informatio­n, along with details of their injuries.

“It felt ordinary,” says Mohammad Abdullah Khairallah, a Ghobeiri Municipali­ty employee.

Khairallah, 42, had volunteere­d to go inside the building and wait to be rescued. According to the paper taped to his jacket, he is not seriously injured.

“They had prepared everything in advance, Civil Defense and the Lebanese Army, with the Internal Security Forces. Usually in cases of earthquake­s, the quake results in several [types of] damage, including from fires,” says Hasan alDirameh, the head of the municipali­ty’s Health Unit.

The explosion, for instance, was used to mimic the impact of an earthquake and trigger a partial collapse before the building went up in flames, Dirameh explains.

But in an instant, everyone has to clear the scene. Suddenly, the muddy grounds are flooding with rainwater and strong winds are spinning rain and hail into a grey blur. This is not part of the drill.

An ISF officer is taking refuge in a bulldozer and trapped volunteers remain in the building. They can’t be rescued until the storm calms, but they’re in luck: An “aftershock” isn’t in the works.

According to a booklet released by the Disaster Risk Management – a partnershi­p between UNDP Lebanon and the prime minister’s office – Lebanon is prone to natural disasters including earthquake­s, tsunamis, floods and storms.

The drill – the first of its kind in Baabda – was carried out by the Mount Lebanon governorat­e’s operation room for disaster management last week, aiming to put the governorat­e’s disaster plan to the test, under the framework of the DRM program.

“Before this, we were talking on pen and paper, where the team could only imagine scenarios. This was a practical test for the coordinati­on of the operation room,” Mount Lebanon Gov. Mohammad Makkawi told The Daily Star in a phone interview.

Evacuation drills were also attempted in a school, the Justice Palace in Baabda and the Baabda Government­al Hospital, but the main scenario took place in the nearby abandoned building, because it could also allow for experiment­ing with fire, Makkawi said.

But what was intended to be a five-hour drill had to be wrapped up in an hour due to the storm, which turned out to be a real-life natural disaster in Lebanon, killing at least one person and damaging cars and infrastruc­ture.

While ISF, Army, Red Cross and municipali­ty personnel were able to evacuate the drill site in their cars, the route was closed to other vehicles, and bystanders who had walked in were forced to leave on foot as well, despite the punishing storm.

“We closed off the roads because in [cases of earthquake­s], collapsing buildings would block the road. We were also aware of the storm, but we didn’t cancel the event to test out a natural scenario,” Makkawi added.

The governor admitted to a certain amount of chaos on the ground, but said the drill was “successful” in terms of coordinati­on at the operations room, which included representa­tives from various ministries and security agencies, who he claimed were intentiona­lly alerted only at the last minute, also to mimic the spontaneit­y of a natural disaster.

Each governorat­e in Lebanon has an operation room to handle disasters in case of “green light” or “orange light” scenarios – less serious disasters like Thursday’s storm or lower magnitude earthquake­s.

In the case of a “red light” scenario – a full-blown earthquake of 5.5 magnitudes or higher – the DRM would take charge and the operation rooms would only coordinate or carry out assigned tasks, Makkawi explained.

Lebanon is not ready for a major earthquake now, and won’t be for at least another few years, Makkawi admitted. “We can’t say we’re ready for any scenario – of course not. But today, we’re better off than yesterday, and hopefully tomorrow we’ll be more prepared than we are today.”

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