Experts: Rainy season to further threaten Beirut heritage

BEIRUT (AP) — Restoring Beirut’s damaged architectural heritage following the devastating August explosion will take hundreds of millions of dollars and costs will quickly rise if no action is taken ahead of the onset of the rainy season in less than two months, international experts warned Tuesday.

An international coalition of museums and heritage protection groups pledged millions of dollars of support to take care of the initial restoration and attempts to keep damaged buildings from crumbling in the coming weeks and months. But that is far from sufficient.

“The directorate general of the antiquities has estimated that 300 million dollars would be necessary to for the restoration of heritage houses in Lebanon,” said Sarkis Khouri, Director General of Antiquities of Lebanon.

Apart from historic homes, many other cultural structures such as museums also need extensive restoration after the massive Aug. 4 blast that killed at least 190 people, injured 6,500 and caused damage worth billions of dollars. The explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port for six years also left a quarter of a million people homeless.

Experts underscored the need to act fast to repair the vast damages to the heritage of the city, once known as the Paris of the Middle East.

“Rain may damage the facades even more,” said Khouri. “We have to cover 100 historic buildings before the rains and support the structure of about 45 houses near the port and about 50 houses that have been badly hit further up. If we do not do that, not only will we have higher expenses in terms of restoration, but we may see some buildings just crumble to pieces.”

And in the historic neighborhoods, it is not specifically the standout monuments that have been hit but also the more mundane homes that give every street its character, said Marie-Laure Lavenir of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

That is also where the organization will provide support, “houses were ordinary people live,” she said, so they won’t be tempted to sell to speculators who would raze their historic homes to build highrises in their place.

Since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, many old buildings have been demolished and replaced by modern highrises. Since the August blast, there have been reports of middlemen scouting destroyed neighborhoods and making offers to buy old buildings.

During a visit to Beirut last month, the U.N. Cultural agency chief Audrey Azoulay said that UNESCO launched a campaign titled “Li Beirut,” or for Beirut, and called on states, the private sector and individuals to donate money. She called for preserving the historic districts of Beirut through laws that prevent selling buildings by taking advantage of owners who have fallen on hard times.

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Casert reported from Brussels