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Lebanon gearing up for heavy snowfall
A taxi driver waits for customers and readies his umbrella for possible rain in the southern port city of Sidon, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
A taxi driver waits for customers and readies his umbrella for possible rain in the southern port city of Sidon, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)
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BEIRUT: Northern Lebanon should be ready for one of its worst snowstorms in recent years starting Tuesday, a government agency said, warning of the impact that heavy snow and high-speed winds could have on local residents and refugees in the mountains.

The winter’s first snowstorm, named “Alexa,” is now expected to hit Lebanon Tuesday and will last for an entire week.

The storm will be accompanied by intense cold and snowfall at medium altitudes in the north, between 1,000-1,500 meters.

The Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, part of the Agriculture Ministry, warned civilians to take necessary precautions against the cold and snow. The agency said that citizens who live in the mountain passes should put snow chains on their car tires.

It also said municipalities, security agencies and the Army should be prepared for the snowfall and the freezing of mountain roads and thoroughfares in the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanon’s police Sunday issued a warning for citizens ahead of this week’s first harsh winter storm, asking them to refrain from driving through the mountains as policemen were put on high alert in case of emergencies.

The acting Internal Security Forces chief, Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, has ordered that the police force remain “on high alert and exhaust all means available to help citizens where roads are blocked.”

He also tasked the ISF with offering citizens help when needed, preventing vehicles from driving on roads that could become dangerous and assisting drivers in areas where snow could accumulate and potentially block vital roads.

The ISF asked citizens traveling on mountainous roads to “check if streets are blocked, equip their vehicles with metal chains, make sure their vehicles are mechanically checked and take precautionary measures when driving in these bad weather conditions.

“[The General Directorate] also asks citizens to take pre-emptive measures such as filling up on gas, carrying extra clothes, having enough canned food and water and a fully charged mobile phone as well as first aid kits, a small shovel and spare tires,” the statement said.

The “intense cold” is expected to set in Tuesday and last for the duration of the storm. It will be accompanied by downpours in the Bekaa Valley, which will receive between 120 and 130 mm of rainfall, as well as the coast, where rainfall could reach 150 mm, the heaviest showers so far this winter.

The Agricultural Research Institute also warned residents of “plastic homes” in the Bekaa and the mountain regions of intense winds and snow that could damage their homes.

The warning is understood to refer to refugees. The Bekaa Valley is home to large numbers of Syrians who fled the conflict next door and often live in tented settlements where abodes are made of plastic sheets.

Winds of up to 70 km/h are forecast for Wednesday.

Alexa is expected to cause record levels of snow in the north, the agency said, as the storm has been gaining intensity as it approaches Lebanon. It also warned fishermen of turbulence in the sea.

Ayad Monzer, a spokesman for the Lebanese Red Cross, said his agency was ready to respond to emergencies during the storm and asked citizens to call the hotline number 140 for assistance “in any emergency and for any request for aid or help.”

Monzer said the agency had a specialized rescue team that was deployed in the mountains, particularly in areas that experience snowstorms, and that they could respond to emergencies throughout the storm.

He advised citizens to follow directives from police forces on road safety.

But a former top civil defense official, who asked to remain anonymous, said his former agency now suffers from a dearth of volunteers and lack of preparedness, linked to the general political stalemate in Lebanon.

“There is no state,” he said.

Lebanon has labored without a functioning Cabinet since March when now-caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati stepped down. Efforts to form a new Cabinet have persistently floundered.

The official said that in the past, the civil defense would place all of its units and centers on full alert ahead of a snowstorm.

The agency would keep tractors, vehicles, boats, firemen and medical personnel ready to respond at all hours to any emergencies.

But he said that the vast majority of civil defense volunteers have stopped working for the agency, because they had been promised full-time jobs that never materialized.

“The centers don’t have people anymore,” he said.

The civil defense could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Emergency response services are often required to prepare detailed plans in order to assess their capabilities ahead of natural disasters, including the assets they’ll need to place on alert or the medical conditions they might encounter.

Mona Chahine, the director of the Nicolas Chahine Observatory, said that December was the normal season of snowstorms in Lebanon.

“It is the month of storms,” she said.

She said municipal authorities and security agencies should take precautions ahead of the storm by cleaning out drains, particularly those along the coast, and removing large advertising billboards on the mountain roads that could fall and block the passes.

Clearing the drains, which are often full of waste from road works carried out by the government in the winter season, will prevent them from overflowing and flooding the streets, Chahine said. Police should also be ready to divert traffic in the event of flooding to prevent medical emergencies.

She said these storms might increase in intensity as a result of global climate change and due to increasing industrialization in Lebanon and the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 09, 2013, on page 4.
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