In the late afternoon on Tuesday, August 4, 2020, nine firefighters reported to Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut in response to a fire that had broken out when some workers had been doing some welding work. When they arrived on the scene, the firefighters could sense something was not quite right and that there was an unusual sound coming from the warehouse. Shortly after the firefighters reported their concerns an explosion erupted inside the warehouse sending out a cloud of smoke and some flashes of light from fireworks that were being stored there. About 35 seconds later a second massive explosion rocked the port and surrounding city sending a large orange cloud into the air. The force of the blast registered between a 3.3-4.5 magnitude earthquake. The damages from the blast spread as far as 6 miles from the epicenter. It was the largest most catastrophic explosion ever in Beirut, and one of the largest non-nuclear events in history.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, many questioned whether it was an intentional attack, some even claiming to have spotted suspicious drones in the area just before the explosions happened. However, both Isreal and Hezbollah quickly confirmed this was not the case, and by the next day, the world knew what had caused the blasts. In November of 2013, the cargo ship MV Rhosus made port in Beirut on it’s way to Mozambique with a cargo of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be used as explosives for mining purposes. For multiple reasons, the cargo was seized and the ship detained in the port. By February 2018, the abandoned and neglected ship finally sank in the harbor while it’s cargo remained in storage at Warehouse 12. Though numerous petitions had been made to move the dangerous cargo out of the city limits, no decisions were ever made. The orange cloud from the second explosion was a reaction from the decomposition of the ammonium nitrate.
As the landscape of Beirut settled into a period of grief, a drone operator took to the skies to give the world a view of the complete destruction of the city. What was once a bustling port center, the home to an estimated 2 million people had become a pile of rubble. The video uploaded by the drone operator is a side by side view of what the port looked like before the explosions and the aftermath of them. As the drone panned over the water along the harbor, one side of the screen shows a city full of buildings, densely constructed roads, ships at anchor or sailing into port, a crowded yet tidy city port scape. The other side of the screen shows the same points of reference, but they are no longer recognizable. Instead, nearly everything surrounding the port is gone or in a smoking, tangled heap of metal and concrete.
The property damages alone are estimated to be around $15 billion, and it is clear to see why from the drone video footage. Homes, schools, hospitals, ships, places of business, all gone. Around 300,000 people are now without shelter. And though the numbers will surely continue to rise, thousands have been injured and hundreds of bodies have been located. The United Nations and other individual foreign entities are vowing to send in resources to help aid in the treatment of the injured, rescue and recover anyone still buried under rubble, and help the restructuring of the city. As Lebanon was already facing a financial crisis, foreign aid is the only way they will be able to face this new mess. Though it has not yet been made clear as to the exact recovery missions, it is likely that assistance could come from drones.
Countless emergency organizations have become reliant on drones in facing the aftermath of such tragedies. Now that the flames have been put out, a primary goal is to rescue any of the hundreds of victims that may still be trapped in the blast zone. Drones, equipped with infrared cameras can safely fly over sites to scan for people. These cameras are able to tell rescue teams if a body that is found is still alive or unfortunately deceased. If the drone’s camera spots a living body, it can instantly become a priority mission. The cameras can also create a 3D blueprint of the rubble so that recovery teams can plan exactly how to extract survivors with minimal risk. With so much devastation, keeping risk to a minimum is equally important to recovery. It will take years for Beirut to heal from this disaster. But, with the help of countries from around the world who have access to the best technology like drones, the relief efforts can get underway as soon as possible.
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