Lebanon News

Three refugee children die in blaze caused by storm

TRIPOLI/SIDON, Lebanon: Three Syrian refugee children were killed when their tent caught fire Thursday, after an apparent electrical short caused by the severe weather.

Storm “Windy” has brought high winds, thunderstorms and heavy snow, flooding rivers and fields and blocking mountain roads. Officials have announced that schools will be closed Friday. Rawaa, Talal and Sabah Sleiman were killed after their tent in the northern Minyeh-Dinnieh district town of Bhenin caught fire. Their bodies were transferred to the nearby Al-Khair hospital in Minyeh.

Many refugees survive in inadequate shelters, and camps are concentrated at higher altitudes across northern and eastern Lebanon, often in exposed fields, making them more vulnerable to inclement weather. Six Syrian refugees, including two newborns, have reportedly been killed by the cold this winter.

Education Minister Elias Bou Saab announced Thursday that schools would be closed Friday and Saturday due to the storm. Health Minister Wael Abu Faour added that nurseries would also be shut.

After hail fell in coastal cities including Beirut and Tripoli, the Meteorological Department at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport said it expected that “Windy” would continue to hammer the country Friday before slowly subsiding Saturday.

Friday is expected to be cloudy and extremely cold, with snow falling as low as 300 meters in the morning. Snowfall will increase gradually during the day, and the department has warned of ice forming on the roads that could make driving treacherous.

Temperatures are expected to range from 4 and 11 degrees Celsius along the coast, minus 3 and 3 in the mountains, minus 11 and minus 5 in the Cedars, and minus 4 and 3 in the Bekaa Valley.

Despite the bleak forecast, aid agencies and government ministers have said they are prepared to deal with the inclement weather.

The Red Cross said it was on high alert Thursday, with 100 ambulances and 400 rescue workers on standby, while Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter called on snow plowing centers and municipal workers to remain on alert, as conditions were expected to deteriorate overnight.

In its forecast, the Meteorological Department said it expected snow to fall down to altitudes of 400 meters overnight Thursday, accompanied by a drop in temperatures. Waves along the seafront are expected to reach heights of up to five meters.

“The regional directorates should be fully prepared to handle any emergencies resulting from the rain and snow,” Zeaiter said, according to a report by the National News Agency.

Zeaiter urged all concerned ministries to work together to minimize disruptions from the storm.

The Dahr al-Baidar road, which connects Beirut with the eastern Bekaa Valley, was closed briefly during the day as the icy surface posed a hazard to motorists. Municipality and Civil Defense workers managed to reopen the vital route, but the Internal Security Forces reported later that intensifying weather had again blocked the road.

With reported temperatures dropping to minus 5 degrees in the Bekaa Valley, residents have complained that distribution companies have prevented them from acquiring adequate fuel to heat their homes.

In a statement released Thursday, Economy Minister Alain Hakim claimed fuel distribution companies were intentionally limiting supplies of diesel fuel to gas stations in the Bekaa Valley, and said that a fuel shortage was not acceptable given the stormy weather.

Hakim accused fuel distribution companies of neglecting to provide gas stations with sufficient quantities of diesel due to a recent decline in prices. He alleged that the companies were holding onto the fuel in order to increase profits when prices rise.

Many Bekaa homes are heated with diesel fuel, and plunging temperatures and heavy snows have driven up consumption.

The district of Akkar saw up to 15 centimeters of snow in some areas, with fog reducing visibility, and snow making mountain roads impassable. Heavy rainfall also caused widespread flooding in the region; swollen rivers burst their banks, inundating adjacent agricultural fields. Farmers said they feared their crops had been destroyed, as newly planted potato and tomato seeds were washed away.

Among the areas that received the heaviest snowfall was the Koura district village of Kousba, which saw more than 50 centimeters. The mountainous area east of Batroun saw 25 centimeters of snow accumulate, as plows worked to reopen the main Tannourine highway.

The southern coast was battered by cold winds, heavy rains and hail, as snow fell at 600 meters. “Windy” also caused maritime disruptions, and fishing was brought to a halt as 7-meter-high waves were reported along Sidon’s coast.

“Windy” is the fourth major storm to batter Lebanon this winter, and the second in as many weeks, following close on the heels of “Yohan.” Last year’s unusually mild winter saw limited rainfall, contributing to a long term drought and precipitating water shortages across the country.

The resumption of more typical winter weather has garnered intense media coverage.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 20, 2015, on page 3.

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