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Lebanon unprepared as winter storms loom
Fishermen remove their boats ahead of a storm at the corniche in Beirut as snow covers the peaks of the mountains in the background, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Fishermen remove their boats ahead of a storm at the corniche in Beirut as snow covers the peaks of the mountains in the background, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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BEIRUT: Lebanon’s first winter storm, named Alexa, is likely to hit early next week, a government agency warned, as the country struggles to recover from the winter’s first intense downpour.

Cold northwestern winds originating from Russia will sweep over Lebanon Monday, bringing with it rainfall, low temperatures across the country and snow at low altitudes, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, part of the Agriculture Ministry, said on its website.

Snow is expected in the Bekaa Valley on Dec. 10, and at altitudes below 800 meters on Dec. 11-14, accompanied by heavy rains and flooding, LARI said, adding that residents in the country’s mountainous areas, as well as security and military forces, should be ready for the snowfall.

The first winter storm follows two days of heavy rainfall that have wreaked havoc on Beirut and other parts of the country, flooding streets and blocking major arteries, and triggering calls for holding public officials accountable for failing to respond to the crisis.

The rainfall is expected to continue through Saturday as a result of a trough, an area of low atmospheric pressure, covering the Eastern Mediterranean, before returning Monday.

Officials at Beirut’s airport advised travelers to arrive three hours in advance of their flight after the Airport Road was reopened by Civil Defense and security forces.Heavy rains had brought mud into the underpass of the vital highway, blocking it in both directions. Traffic was diverted off the airport highway down to the Ouzai road earlier in the day, creating bumper-to-bumper crawls and leaving hundreds of commuters stranded for hours.

Heavy downpours since Wednesday morning triggered floods in several parts of Beirut as well as in eastern, northern and southern Lebanon.

The season’s first heavy rainfall created havoc in many parts of the country and caused traffic jams in Beirut and its suburbs, mainly the Dbayyeh highway, Dora, Nahr al-Mot and Nahr al-Kalb.

President Michel Sleiman followed up on the procedures and measures taken to address the road flooding as a result of the one-day rainstorm, his office said.

Civil Defense workers struggled all night to pull cars and passenger vans out of the flooded tunnel.

Caretaker Transportation and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi called off a news conference that had been scheduled for midday to address the road flooding.

Head of the Public Works Parliamentary Committee MP Mohammad Qabbani blamed Aridi for the flooding, saying the ministry neglected to carry out maintenance work on the streets.

“It is unfortunate that scenes of flooding are repeating every year ... the disaster will recur especially that yesterday’s rain was merely the first stage of winter,” he said.

The Meteorology Department at Rafik Hariri International Airport told The Daily Star that rainfall would continue until Friday evening, with winds to approach 70 kms per hour.

Local media blamed Lebanese officials, particularly the Public Works Ministry, for the current flooding.

The experience of the last two days shows that “we are not really prepared as a city to face such natural phenomena,” said Professor Simon Moussalli, formerly in charge of Town Planning Studies at the American University of Beirut and the Urban Planning Department at the Lebanese University.

Moussalli expressed his “disappointment” at the city’s handling of the crisis.

“To think that in this country where you have manpower, knowledge, and we pretend to be at the top of all technologies, and yet we see that our country is suffering from the same troubles that the most underdeveloped countries are suffering,” he said. “That is my biggest regret.”

Moussalli said the high population density and the construction boom in Beirut in the last decade far outpaced its infrastructure, meaning that water from storms that is usually absorbed by the soil and drainage systems instead floods the streets.

“When every plot of land is covered by a multi-story building, this decreases the amount of empty land which can absorb water,” he said. “This is why all the surface water ends up in the streets.”

When the weather clears, the government should do a comprehensive survey of the storm water drainage network in Beirut, he said, and budget infrastructure overhauls.

Lebanon’s weather forecasts are usually based on wind streams that travel through Russia, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, with predictions in the fall that an intense cold front in Russia would make its way to the region.

But Chahine said cold fronts could often be diverted by the prevailing winds, making it hard to predict their arrival more than 48 hours in advance.

Lebanon has had very limited rainfall this year as a result of changing weather patterns that some experts attribute to global warming.

Rather than the annual rainy season beginning in mid-October, east-west winds that bring with them rain have been strangled by colder, heavier northern winds, causing alternating cloudy and clear, cold days instead of rains.

Mona Chahine, who runs the Nicolas Chahine Observatory in Beirut, said it was possible the northern winds originating in Russia would cause an abundance of snow for the rest of the winter which can be captured in wellsprings and provide water to the rest of Lebanon.

She downplayed the prediction of the coming snow storm and said it was impossible to accurately forecast it a week in advance.

“We shouldn’t panic, we can’t do anything about it,” she said.

Mazen Sayed, the director of emergency medical services and prehospital care at AUB Medical Center, said that emergency response services generally treat storm conditions as a “surge” in their regular activity.

He said that emergency responders will usually conduct a medical threat assessment to determine which conditions they are likely to have to deal with during the storm, such as hypothermia in the colder, mountainous regions, or carbon monoxide poisoning as people use unconventional heating methods, such as coal, indoors.

In addition, emergency personnel usually face problems in actually getting to individuals who need medical assistance because of conditions like flooding.

“Access is usually a common problem in storms,” he said.

Usually, emergency service providers will plan to set up a presence in high-risk areas that they cannot reach during the storm, or arrange to evacuate vulnerable people from there.

What is important, he said, is for emergency personnel to plan for storms in advance, assess their capabilities and coordinate with other relief agencies.

For regular people, Sayed said they should avoid the outdoors or going to remote areas during storms.

They should also ensure they have adequate heating and avoid open fires inside their homes, Sayed added

People who suffer from chronic conditions should arrange to have company in case they need assistance, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 06, 2013, on page 1.
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