“Complete disaster,” Azar said, shuffling through the wrecked apartment, which occupies the top floor of a 100-year-old pink house in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood.
Beirut officials have estimated that the damage from the enormous blast that shook the city two weeks ago could reach $15 billion, though the true extent of the destruction remains unknown. At least 25,000 homes are so badly damaged that they are uninhabitable, according to the Beirut government.
There are myriad hurdles for rebuilding, including a months-old financial crisis that has sent the value of the Lebanese currency plunging and prompted draconian banking restrictions that limit withdrawals even by those with money in their accounts.
Only a few homeowners have insurance, and they are being told they can’t receive a payout until the cause of the explosion is established by the government’s investigation, since damage due to war or terrorism is not covered. They say they have little hope of ever being compensated. In the meantime, landlords and long-term tenants are fighting over who should pay for repairs.
The Azar family estimates it might cost as much as $200,000 to restore their home, given the need for specialized craftsmanship and a requirement for iron supports to buttress the entire building. They have no insurance.
“I cannot afford it at all,” said Azar’s 60-year-old son Joe. “I have some savings but not enough. Besides, the bank is not giving us our money. It’s catastrophic.”
The Aug. 4 blast, which killed at least 180 people, laid waste to entire neighborhoods as the shock wave surged across the city. The impact sundered building facades, leaving rooms open to the street like giant dollhouses. Windows shattered for miles. Some structures collapsed, crushing their occupants.
The wave of immense pressure also coursed through sewers and vents, smashing open toilets and bursting pipes. Manholes popped off Ottoman-era wells under houses.
No one expects assistance from the bankrupt government, which has been largely absent from cleanup efforts. Private funding of repairs is hamstrung by the banking restrictions, put in place last year after it emerged that as much as $100 billion is missing from the banking system, a sign of the country’s chronic mismanagement and corruption.
Foreign donors have so far focused their assistance to Lebanon on medicine and food aid, although the United Nations launched an appeal last week for an emergency $565 million fund to cover food, shelter, health and education. It also stressed the “critical need” to address recovery and reconstruction, which would probably require a mix of public and private financing.
Tenants with rent-controlled leases that in some cases span generations could be vulnerable to eviction as landlords use the damage as an excuse to get rid of them, according to Mona Harb, a professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut.
Activists who have long battled to preserve Beirut’s traditional buildings fear that speculators will swoop in with offers and buy up property to build lucrative high-rises. Reconstruction would then come at the expense of the traditionally diverse mix of residents.
“We really worry that there are people that are real estate sharks that are going to make use of this opportunity,” Harb said. “People are very vulnerable; they might need to make quick decisions on selling. It’s not just about buildings. We need to make sure the social fabric of the area remains in place.”
A family rebuilds through their grief
It’s too early to know how much rebuilding will cost, said Michel Chalhoub, who previously served on emergency engineering teams in California after nine different earthquakes, picking through rubble and checking the safety of buildings. Now he’s doing this in his home country, after an entirely man-made disaster.
“It’s disheartening,” he said.
The emergency response has been slower in Beirut than in California, where engineering teams are immediately dispatched with firefighters to assess damage, he said. The good news, Chalhoub said, is that damage from an aboveground blast should not be as severe as that from a serious earthquake. But building regulations are not as strict in Lebanon and safety requirements are sometimes skirted.
Working with a private organization, he surveyed several historical buildings on a recent day. Most had already been crumbling before the explosion.
At one damaged building, a family was starting to rebuild after the structure suffered a partial collapse. Chalhoub said he was concerned by the way iron support struts were being erected to support new walls on the second floor. Instead of the struts running all the way up from the ground, they were pressing down on the floor below.
“It’s dangerous,” he said.
But one of the family members, Hayat Abi Chacra, said the repair work was being done at no charge and that she would take whatever assistance she could get. The workman doing the repairs had volunteered to help after her 38-year-old son, Shadi, was killed in the explosion. It had taken two days to recover his body from the rubble.
Through their grief, the Abi Chacra family was trying to rebuild with what little money they earned from working at a parking lot behind the house. The bill for new electrical wires alone would run the equivalent of about $400. For new glass and fixtures, workmen were asking to be paid in actual dollars.
But there was much more than windows and walls lost.
“No matter how much we rebuild the house,” said Shadi’s sister Nancy, “it will always be empty to me.”
Developers threaten historical preservation
Just a mile across town is an example of how things can go wrong. After Lebanon’s 15-year civil war decimated Beirut, the government expropriated land from owners downtown, compensating them with shares in Solidere, the development company tasked with rebuilding. Billions of dollars later, the result is a sanitized city center devoid of street life, with high-end designer stores beyond the reach of most residents.
“It’s beyond gentrification,” said Harb. “It’s akin to a gated community.”
Even before the explosion this month battered the neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze, the areas were a battleground between real estate developers and activists. These quarters of eastern Beirut are home to some of the few remaining heritage buildings, with their iconic triple-arched windows, and were gradually being replaced by high-rise towers. Amid the financial crisis, investors with hard currency from abroad have gained a further advantage.
After the blast, the government barred the sale of real estate of a “historical nature” or the arrangement of any real estate transactions without approval of the Ministry of Culture, to prevent “exploitation” during the period of survey and reconstruction. Harb has little faith this prohibition will fare any better than previous directives meant to protect Beirut’s history.
On the street where the Azars live, Michel Bouchedid was recently leading a team of volunteer engineers and architects conducting an initial damage survey. He pointed to a high-rise building under construction.
“This is what [an investor] has to gain,” he said. “This is prime real estate. Each apartment is worth more than a million. This is where the conflict comes, for the government, for the owners, for the renters.”
A few hundred yards up the hill, near a badly smashed hospital, Francois Chahwan, 66, said he’d be open to selling the home his family has lived in for 100 years or working with a real estate investor to tear it down and rebuild. He said engineers have told him the top floor was damaged in the explosion and is a risk to the whole structure.
Chahwan said he drew up plans for a 13-story building a few years ago. But the investment fell through, and there were also questions about whether his house was protected as a heritage building, he said. If he proceeded with repairs and refurbished the eight apartments in the building, the most he could make would be a few thousand dollars a month, he said.
“Whereas [the high-rise] building can give me $50,000,” he said. “Is it difficult to choose between this and that?”
Sarah Dadouch and Nader Durgham in Beirut and Susan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.