BEIRUT: A severe winter storm that has raged in Lebanon since the weekend has claimed the lives of four people and forced the closure of schools across the country and some mountainous roads.
The Beirut suburb of Hay al-Sellom witnessed some of the worst devastation caused by the heavy winds and rain and raised fears that buildings in the area could collapse.
Lebanese Red Cross official George Kettaneh told the Voice of Lebanon radio station late Monday that four people died and 55 others were injured as a result of traffic accidents caused by rains and floods.
A homeless man was also found dead in Beirut Monday. Cold weather contributed to his death.
The storm, which arrived from Russia on Sunday, has also caused extensive damage to homes, businesses, crops and public infrastructure across Lebanon.
Its effects were also felt by poor families and vulnerable Syrian refugees throughout the country.
Public and private schools were ordered shut Tuesday and Wednesday over safety concerns as Lebanon braced itself for more high winds, rain and snow.
Commenting on the damage in Hay el-Sellom, Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi warned of an imminent collapse to the buildings in the southern suburb.
“[Structures] in Hay al-Sellom were not built on solid foundations and are at risk of collapsing at any time in addition to the fact that the river has become narrower given illegal construction around it,” Aridi told LBCI.
He was referring to the overflowing of the Ghadir River which caused heavy material damage in the area.
While flights at Beirut airport were not affected by the blizzard, maritime operations were halted at south Lebanon's Sidon and Tyre ports.
In the northern town of Abrin, Batroun, the municipality said some 10,000 books had been destroyed as a result of the flooding of a public library and said it would sue the contracting company responsible for sanitation projects in the area.
In a statement released after an emergency meeting by the municipal council members, the municipality said that the rain "flooded the public library located at the municipality’s headquarters and ruined 10,000 books."
It added that it would prepare a legal case against the contracting company for damages.
In the northern city of Tripoli, the municipality’s emergency team remained on alert, diverting the direction of rainwater through canals in order to prevent flooding of roads and streets.
Mayor Nader al-Ghazal told The Daily Star that his team was following up on the weather conditions via its contingency plan and "working hard to resolve within its capabilities the issue of old buildings with cracks.”
Despite efforts by the municipality to prevent costly damages and loss of life, mud slides almost killed a family of nine in the city when a bolder collapsed on the metal shack they were living in.
"Around 4 a.m., we felt the strength of the water flooding and the mud slide," the mother, who was slightly injured in the foot, said.
The family ran out of the house minutes before the bolder collapsed on the metal structure. They have moved to their relatives' house.
In Minyeh, irrigation streams were flooded, blocking roads and damaging crops.
A resident of the area said the only positive aspect to come from the rainstorm was that it brought families together.
"The storm took us back to our houses like our grandparents where we now sit around the heater. We bake potatoes and chestnuts and follow events of the storm on television.
“I guess the only positive aspect of the storm is the gathering of the family just like the old days,” he said.
All but some mountainous roads in the Kesrouan district, the Chouf, Mount Lebanon as well as in some east and north Lebanon regions remained closed for a second day Tuesday, the police said.
Other roads were open for metal chain-equipped vehicles.
The storm, one of the strongest in Lebanon in 25 years according to Mona Shahine Khauli of the Nicholas Shahine Meteorology center, flooded several highways in the capital, Beirut, Monday as well as roads in north, east and south Lebanon that led to massive traffic jams.
Authorities reopened roads after they were blocked with trees uprooted by rain and strong winds.
The Lebanese Army said it had rescued a “large number” of citizens stranded in their vehicles by snow and floods, particularly in the barren terrain of Baalbek in east Lebanon and Akkar in north Lebanon as well as in Jbeil and Kesrouan, north of Beirut.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the military said people who were injured in the storm were taken to local hospitals for treatment.
It said Army engineer units also reopened several roads blocked by snow and landslides.
Meanwhile, MP Mohammad Qabbani blamed some of the deaths on violations and poor maintenance.
“We would like to point out the [cases of] three or four fatalities, including Joseph Sfeir whose car skidded, to emphasize that the most important cause of death is not the cruelty of fate, but human negligence,” Qabbani said in a statement Tuesday.
He said the main cause behind the Beirut River flooding was due to violations by a construction company which narrowed the river waterway.
He said similar violations were the main cause of other river floods in the country.
The MP from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future bloc also attributed road collapses to the “absence of periodic maintenance and [water] channels as well as bridges.”
He called for the establishment of a disaster management committee.
A midday report by the Meteorological office at Beirut airport said the storm would continue until Thursday.
It said Wednesday’s weather is expected to be rainy accompanied by thunderstorms. The weather department said the storm would also bring lower temperatures and snow is expected to fall as low as 600 meters above sea level and 300 meters during the night.
The department is expecting rainy weather Thursday with intermittent snow at 200 meters above sea level and even lower temperatures.
Meanwhile, relatives of a missing baby who was washed away by heavy rain Monday began their own search for him Tuesday morning.
The Civil Defense also resumed Tuesday morning its search for 7-month-old Youssef al-Fadel after it suspended its search during the night due to the poor weather conditions.
Fadel, the storm’s youngest victim, is the son of a Lebanese shepherd family who was swept away after heavy rain flooded their tent on the hills of Jadra in the Iqlim al-Kharroub region east of the southern city of Sidon.
About 13 of Fadel’s relatives, including children, split into groups to search in nearby valleys and streams.
With their legs half submerged in mud, the family began the search around 9 a.m., escorted by their cattle watchdog.
“Sadly, we found the boy’s cot and his blanket, but we didn’t find Youssef,” said the boy’s uncle, Ali.
A Civil Defense official said that rescue teams who were forced to suspend their search efforts overnight due to bad weather would continue their search Tuesday.
“We searched [Monday] among the bushes and trees and inside [agricultural] greenhouses, but found no one,” the official told The Daily Star.
“But we will continue searching for him,” the official added.