Disaster Response, Disaster Risk Reduction, GIS, Imagery, Mapping, Volunteering

Assessing and Responding to the Beirut Blast through the Use of Imagery and Mapping Techniques

My colleague turned his phone to me and said, “Have you seen this?” Thinking that it was just another funny video created by one of the many internet users who are currently in lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I braced myself. This time however, it was no joke!

On August 4th, 2020, a warehouse at the Port in Beirut, Lebanon, storing approximately 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, exploded, destroying nearby buildings and causing damage miles away.

Compare the images below by moving the slider. They show images pre-event on June 9, 2020 and post-event on August 5, 2020. In the image the port warehouses, and the grain silos can be seen. The destruction of the 120,000-ton capacity structure of the grain silo and disabling of the port, the main entry point for food imports, exacerbates concerns about food supplies for Lebanon.

Satellite images shows pre and post blast event in Beirut, Lebanon

Coincidentally, during my university days in Edinburgh, Scotland, I shared a flat with two amazing ladies who I grew very close to during my year abroad. Thankfully, I still maintain close contact with them, although it has been more than 16 years since we first met. One of them is from Lebanon and the other from Cyprus. Instinctively, upon realizing the severity of the situation that I witnessed in that video, I reached out to them both. My friend from Lebanon, now resides elsewhere. She indicated however, that many of her family members suffered damage to their homes. My Cypriot friend mentioned that they heard the explosion all the way in Cyprus and that it even felt like an earthquake!

Pictured below is a map showing the proximity of Cyprus to Lebanon, an approximate 265 km distance. I couldn’t help but think of the safety of my friends and their families.

Proximity of Cyprus to Lebanon

As a member of the humanitarian mapping charity – MapAction, I was thankful to learn that a 3 member group was being deployed to help! Even with the rising challenges of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, this organization, as well as many others are ready to offer support in crisis.

Responding to the Beirut explosion

After being given the opportunity to attend an International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) Earthquake Response Exercise (ERE) in December 2019 in Thailand, I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the need of collaboration and communication between the teams that are on the ground responding to a disastrous situation. MapAction supports this effort by providing maps to help with co-ordination. The map below shows that in Lebanon, there are several teams on the ground, to include Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) and the Red Cross. It is quite helpful when co-ordination locations are known by all the teams on the ground.

This is another map that has been provided by MapAction. It shows the area being divided up into more manageable sectors. The locations where bio hazards exist, have been identified and highlighted on the map.

During the past few days, many satellite imagery companies have offered their support to Beirut. This offering is welcomed, as it helps teams on the ground to conduct further damage assessment and provide service delivery to those in need.

The Disasters Charter has also been activated to respond to the Beirut blast. Though clouds obscure parts of this image taken via a Pleides satellite sensor, the map shows emergency shelters being set up, and highlights the location of hospitals in the area.

It is my hope and prayer that Lebanon receives the much needed support and humanitarian relief it requires in the aftermath of this disaster. #prayforlebanon

In my previous blogs I have indicated the importance of up-to-date imagery in responding to a disaster and also what led me to becoming a MapAction Volunteer. You can read them below:

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

GIS, Mapping, Volunteering

Becoming a MapAction Volunteer

When the call came for Caribbean volunteers to apply to MapAction, I was keen to sign up. Having followed the work of this organization and the amazing group of persons who work as volunteers, I saw this as an awesome opportunity for me to contribute to the work of saving lives.

MapAction is a non-governmental, UK based charity, that specializes in providing mapping for humanitarian emergencies. MapAction has the ability to quickly gather crucial data and convey it visually, in the form of maps.  With MapAction’s support, aid agencies, governments and local partners, are in a better position to make informed decisions to deliver aid and emergency supplies to the right place, quickly.

Living in Montserrat, with an active volcano and being privy to how devastating disasters can be, I was grateful for the prospect of being able to use my skills in geospatial technologies to contribute to humanitarian efforts during a disaster. My mind quickly raced back to the impact Hurricanes Irma and Maria had on my neighboring Caribbean Islands, in 2017. I wanted to be in a better position to offer assistance if a situation like that – God-forbid – presented itself again.

I therefore, submitted an application to the organization and not very long after, I was greeted with an email inviting me to an “Assessment Day“. Needless to say, I was very happy to advance to the next stage.

Assessment Day turned out to be very interesting. Surprisingly, during the introductory session, I was reintroduced to the Head of the MapAction Caribbean Section, who reminded me, that we met, while he visited Montserrat in another capacity several years before. Moreover, the gentleman who is the Preparedness Lead for MapAction worked in Montserrat briefly on a project back in the early 2000s. I found it to be very fascinating how unsuspectingly our paths crossed again! In addition, hearing the testimony of a fellow MapAction Volunteer, sort of sealed the deal for me. He explained what being a volunteer all entailed and how my skills can contribute to saving lives.

Overall, this interview process was detailed enough to ensure that I was a good fit for MapAction. Amongst other skills, the panel assessed team spirit, leadership potential and the knowledge and application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools and software.

Receiving another email shortly after assessment day, entitled, “MapAction Caribbean Section – Interview Outcome”, I nervously, but anxiously opened it. The words that bounced from my computer screen, read:

Congratulations, you have been selected to join our Caribbean Team! 

This was awesome news and I am absolutely thrilled to be apart of the MapAction family and being able to contribute to society in this capacity.

I look forward to sharing more about the work of MapAction and my experiences in future blogs.

Learn more about the work of MapAction at www.mapaction.org.

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specializing in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.