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Rapid response: With help from around the world, Rotary clubs in Lebanon spring into action after a major disaster

by Photos courtesy of

The clouds of white smoke billowing into the air over Beirut were an ominous sign that something had gone terribly wrong in a storage hangar at the city’s port. Then a fireball of orange smoke and flames erupted straight up into the sky.

The massive explosion on 4 August 2020 killed more than 200 people, displaced hundreds of thousands more from their homes, and destroyed or damaged many structures. It was caused by a dangerous mix of materials that had been stored in the hangar — including ammonium nitrate, oil, kerosene, hydrochloric acid, miles of fuse wire on spools, and 15 tons of fireworks.

As the magnitude of the destruction became known, Rotary clubs in Lebanon and around the world asked themselves what they could do to respond to a disaster that was playing out amid a deadly global pandemic. They soon realized that hospitals, some of which had been severely damaged, were in dire need of help. Beirut-area clubs received donations from clubs around the world; some worked with clubs outside Lebanon to apply for global grants from The Rotary Foundation.

Antoine Kaldany, past president of the Rotary Club of Beirut-Cedars, says the needs were acute at the Lebanese Hospital Geitaoui-University Medical Center. “We knew very early after the blast that Beirut’s main hospitals were partially destroyed and overwhelmed by the number of victims,” Kaldany says. “The emergency rooms were damaged but were still treating the wounded from the neighborhood. Everybody witnessed the medical staff’s heroic actions. Doctors and nurses were operating in dramatic conditions.”

Located less than a mile from the explosion, the Geitaoui hospital sustained extensive damage. The Beirut-Cedars club consulted with the Rotary Club of Bad Homburg v.d.H. in Germany and used a global grant to replace medical equipment, including ventilators and monitors for MRI machines, an imaging machine that enables doctors to see inside a patient during surgery, laparoscopic and endoscopy towers, and a cystoscope.

Erhard Krause, the Bad Homburg club’s director of international service, says his club didn’t hesitate to work with the Beirut-Cedars club; they’d already been collaborating since 2018 on a project to assist Syrian refugee children. The Bad Homburg club also brought in support from nearly 30 other German clubs. “It’s satisfying to bring together so many clubs to make a substantial contribution to restoring health care in Lebanon in such difficult times,” Krause says.

Also in desperate need of assistance was Karantina Hospital. “The Rotary Club of Beirut Cosmopolitan identified Karantina Hospital for aid because it is the only public hospital in Beirut and because it is recognized for its support of needy pediatric patients. Such patients do not otherwise have easy access to private hospitals,” says Habib Saba, the club’s 2020-21 president.

  1. Like many buildings near the site of the explosion, Beirut hospitals were left with extreme damage, often making it difficult or impossible to treat patients safely. This led to a sudden surge in demand at other hospitals not directly affected by the blast.

  2. Like many buildings near the site of the explosion, Beirut hospitals were left with extreme damage, often making it difficult or impossible to treat patients safely. This led to a sudden surge in demand at other hospitals not directly affected by the blast.

  3. Like many buildings near the site of the explosion, Beirut hospitals were left with extreme damage, often making it difficult or impossible to treat patients safely. This led to a sudden surge in demand at other hospitals not directly affected by the blast.

  4. Like many buildings near the site of the explosion, Beirut hospitals were left with extreme damage, often making it difficult or impossible to treat patients safely. This led to a sudden surge in demand at other hospitals not directly affected by the blast.

When the explosion made international news, the Beirut Cosmopolitan club received offers of help from its network of clubs worldwide, as well as from clubs it had not connected with previously. “It was a truly humbling experience to have Rotary clubs from all corners of the globe contact us, whether they knew us or not, and, in the wake of the explosion, express their desire to assist,” Saba says.

The club partnered on a global grant with the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise, Ontario. Steve Rutledge, the Whitby Sunrise club’s Beirut relief project chair, says a team made up of members from both clubs reviewed the hospital’s critical needs, as well as the scope and estimated costs of the proposed project. The clubs focused on restoring the hospital’s pediatric and neonatal wing, using grant funds to replace all of the operating room equipment and provide 19 pediatric beds and other furnishings.

The explosion and its aftermath

  1. 551 tons

    Power of the blast in TNT equivalent

  2. 200+

    People killed in the blast

  3. 6,500+

    People injured in the blast

  4. 300,000+

    People left homeless by the blast

  5. $15 billion+

    Cost of the damage from the blast

To garner extended support, Whitby Sunrise members created a video that showed a health care worker making a plea for help while walking through the damaged pediatric ward; then the club developed Zoom presentations. In total, 60 clubs from seven districts in Canada were among the more than 150 clubs across the globe that participated in the global grant. “The scale of this global grant project, in terms of budget and number of collaborating clubs, makes it a showcase of the international goodwill and dedication to service of the Rotary family for a truly worthy cause — children,” Saba says.

The Rotary Club of Beyrouth (Beirut) organized another global grant, to supply respiratory devices to a hospital whose equipment had been destroyed as well as to hospitals that received an influx of COVID-19 patients. Rita Méouchy, director of international service projects for the Beyrouth club, says they received support from other clubs in Lebanon and used an online fundraising platform to collect donations. They also received offers of help from clubs as far away as Nepal, Australia, and Europe.

Those offers were gratefully accepted, but the global grant, with the Rotary Club of Paris acting as the international sponsor and three other French Rotary clubs and District 1660 lending support, was the crux of their efforts. “Receiving a global grant enabled us to execute important projects with large budgets,” Méouchy says. “We would never have been able to achieve these projects relying on our limited financial capacity.”

Other global grants aimed at alleviating the difficulties at the damaged hospitals included one hosted by the Beirut-Cedars club, with the Rotary Club of Schenefeld, Germany, acting as the international sponsor. That grant will supply medical equipment to St. George Hospital University Medical Center, which was rendered non-operational following the blast; 160 patients had to be evacuated. “The devastating loss hit the heart of the hospital,” the club’s global grant application states. “In order to resume its mission of providing excellent health care services to the community, a lot of work was needed on different levels of the hospital.”

A global grant organized by the Rotary Club of Beyrouth helped pay for ventilators, including portable models such as this one, which make it possible to care for patients without putting them into overtaxed intensive care units.

The Rotary Club of Hammana-Upper Metn also received a grant to aid St. George Hospital; the funds would pay for equipment for the care of newborns. Bruce Allen, a member of the Rotary Club of Castle Hill, Australia, says the club was glad to partner on that grant. “While the international partner is not physically involved in the logistics of the program, we are still very much part of it,” he says. His club raised funds in various ways, including starting a GoFundMe page and a hosting a dinner at a Lebanese restaurant.

Another grant was awarded to the Rotary Club of Kesrouan, Lebanon, which is supplying three humidifiers with high-flow oxygen and one medical ventilator for treating COVID-19 patients. This equipment went to hospitals outside Beirut that have taken in patients who would otherwise have been treated in Beirut hospitals.

Throughout the year since the blast, Rotary members have been steadfast in their support of the Beirut clubs. The assistance “speaks volumes to the Rotary spirit and the universal values that bind us as Rotarians worldwide,” Saba says.

This story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.

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