BEIRUT: Storm Norma inundated major highways and dozens of refugee settlements across Lebanon Tuesday, with a Syrian girl missing after being swept away in the flooding and some 50 people reported injured.
A number of roads were forced to close due to the extreme flooding. Drivers were marooned on the Dbayeh highway and Civil Defense launched rafts into the waters to rescue people from their vehicles.
Mount Lebanon Gov. Mohammed al-Makkawi announced the closure of the Dahr al-Baidar and Zahle-Tarshish highways at 4 p.m., while North Lebanon Gov. Ramzi Nahra said the Chekka highway will be closed following repeated landslides and rockfall, the state-run National News Agency reported.
In light of the dramatic scenes of flooding broadcast on local TV stations, Financial Public Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim has contacted the Public Works Ministry requesting the name of the company responsible for maintaining sewers in Dbayeh, according to LBCI news. Local media also reported that Ibrahim has summoned the head of the Choueifat Public Works Council for questioning.
Images broadcast on TV also showed people in the neighborhood of Hay al-Selloum in Beirut’s southern suburbs attempting to cross the street, knee-deep in muddy waters.
Elsewhere in the capital, water was seen pouring through a massive crack under a bridge in the main intersection of the Cola neighborhood, raising concerns over its structural soundness. However, the Internal Security Forces later issued a statement saying that there was no threat to public safety and that the water was leaking from a section of the bridge that was under maintenance.
The Red Cross reported that it had dispatched 581 emergency teams across the country to respond to weather-related incidents, including the injury of 49 people in traffic accidents.
The statement added that it had saved 703 refugees from five settlements in northern Lebanon that had flooded since the storm began. The NNA later reported that a Syrian girl was missing after flood waters swept her from her home in the northern Minyeh-Dinnieh district.
The United Nations refugee agency released a statement saying that at least 66 informal Syrian refugee settlements have been heavily impacted by the flooding, 15 of which have been completely flooded or collapsed. The statement added that heavy snow has blanketed camps in Bekaa and that around 300 refugees have been relocated in the Bekaa area and in the north.
Caretaker Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi directed caretaker Social Affairs Minister Pierre Bou Assi to temporarily transfer refugees affected by the storm to other camps and asked mayors to begin operations to remove floodwaters from the camps.
The ISF and Civil Defense also reportedly rescued people who had become stuck in snow across the mountains overnight and throughout the day, including a group of five men who had been stuck at a cattle farm in Dinnieh since their car broke down Sunday night.
In Akkar, the Nahr al-Kabir River - which delineates Lebanon’s northern border with Syria - breached its banks and inundated agricultural land.
The mukhtar of Semmaqiyeh, one of the affected towns, told the NNA that for decades, locals have been demanding that state officials create dirt mounds like the ones on the Syrian side of Nahr al-Kabir to heighten its banks as a precautionary measure, as well as create and expand irrigation channels. “Heavy rains often cause these disasters, and blessings of water, which we impatiently wait for, often turn to a curse,” he said.
Banana farmers in the southern town of Al-Kasmieh, in Tyre, complained that they had already fallen below the poverty line because of low banana prices this season, and that now floods had washed away trees still bearing fruit, constituting a “real disaster.”
In Sidon, fishermen were beached for the third consecutive day as 5-m-high waves raged against the port’s breakwater.
Hail and heavy winds damaged greenhouses in the city. Ahmad Reda, a farmer, told The Daily Star that he hoped the intensifying storm had not destroyed his and other farmers’ crops. “It’s a strong storm, and I hope that God will prevent damage to the crops, because the hail that is falling will pierce the citrus and vegetable leaves.”
Keeping warm from the bone-chilling temperatures, a number of Sidonian fruit vendors gathered around a barrel of burning wood.
The NNA reported that a Sidon Municipality employee was hospitalized after winds brought a metal billboard crashing down on top of him at the city’s fishing port. Former Sidon MP and head of the Popular Nasserite Organization Osama Saad called on municipalities to remove any billboard that does not meet the legal safety requirements after he visited the man in the hospital.
Adding to the difficult conditions, parts of the country experienced electricity outages as Lebanon’s already crumbling infrastructure took a battering.
The heavy snowfall and strong winds raging through parts of the country had prompted caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh earlier in the day to order all public schools across the country, including those on the coast, to close until the storm passes.
The decision is meant to prevent “accidents of vehicles transporting students due to snow or bad visibility,” the Education Ministry said in a statement.
Private schools continued to have the prerogative to decide whether they will open their doors.
Hamadeh’s order, which will keep the schools closed until Thursday, extends a previous decision that shut down schools in mountainous areas over the past two days because of the stormy conditions, but kept those on the coast open. However, heavy rains have since caused flooding and mudslides at lower altitudes and also led to the collapse of roads and walls, creating treacherous conditions.
Although students had gone to school Tuesday morning in some coastal areas, afternoon classes were canceled.
The ISF warned residents of Lebanon to stay away from the coast and beaches as well as trees and billboards as the storm intensifies.
The official morning weather forecast from the Beirut airport said that winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour were expected in the afternoon, set to peak overnight Wednesday. Snow was expected to fall across the country at altitudes as low as 500 meters in the far north, and at higher elevations in other regions as the day goes on.
Icy roads can be expected Wednesday for most of Lebanon at altitudes of 700 m and up - think Broummana.
Temperatures Tuesday were set to range from 9-15 degrees Celsius on the coast, 3-5 degrees in the mountains and 0-5 degrees in the interior, though temperatures vary widely by altitude.
Stormy conditions are set to continue through Wednesday, with low temperatures, snow falling at 600 m in the north and at higher altitudes in the rest of Lebanon and ice forming at 700 m and above. The brunt of the stormy conditions will subside Thursday, though scattered showers will continue, and ice is expected to form on roads 800 m and up.
This article was amended on Tuesday, January 08 2019
A previous version of this article mistakenly confirmed the death of a Syrian girl in Minyeh-Dinnieh. While she is feared dead after being swept away in flooding, her body was not found as of Tuesday evening. The Daily Star regrets this error.