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Aftermath Of The Massive Explosion In Beirut, Lebanon

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

The frantic search for survivors continues after yesterday's catastrophic explosion in Beirut. At least 130 people have been confirmed dead, and 4,000 were injured. As much as half of Lebanon's capital was badly damaged - collapsed walls, shattered glass - and so far, as signs point to a tragic, possibly careless accident that caused the detonation of more than 2,000 tons of explosive material in a warehouse near the port. Journalist Nada Homsi joins us now from Beirut.

Hi, Nada.

NADA HOMSI: Hi.

VANEK SMITH: So tell us - how is the city coping now? Paint a picture for us, if you will.

HOMSI: The city is trying to cope as best as it can given the circumstances. Hospitals were treating people outside in the street because they're so full. I went to one hospital today that was so damaged it had to shut down and move people out to other hospitals. Rescue teams are still going through the rubble of thousands of buildings that have been damaged or destroyed to see if there's people still alive there or to dig out the dead, and there's constant sirens across the city.

The governor for the city of Beirut was on TV in tears last night, and today he told media that half the city has been damaged. And the government also instituted two weeks of emergency martial law so that troops can maintain order and help with the recovery missions.

VANEK SMITH: What do we know about what caused the explosion?

HOMSI: Well, officials are talking about a warehouse that had more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is a material that can be a fertilizer, or it can be used to make bombs. And they've known about this dangerous material since about 2014. It's thought that it was brought in by a cargo ship that was impounded at the time, which was carrying the same material.

And the government has arrested some port workers. They say that whoever caused it will pay a price and that there's going to be accountability. And even though we don't know what actually ignited the explosion and it's being looked at as an accident, it seems that it may have been caused by negligence by officials.

VANEK SMITH: Nada, you've been on the ground reporting this. What are people saying?

HOMSI: I saw groups of people that are organizing their own cleanup and rescue efforts. In just one neighborhood, I saw hundreds of people. They're regular citizens, and they're all taking part in the cleanup. So the scale of this is quite large because more than half the city was destroyed or damaged. And even people who were lightly injured were involved in it.

You really get the sense that people are not waiting around for the government to lead this effort because you have to remember that for the last year, this country has been collapsing due to corruption, power outages, lack of cash and food. So the political class has lost a lot of people's confidence, and now people want to know how this explosion could have happened.

Here's one man that I talked to. He gave his name as Hassan, and he was helping clear the debris from the streets.

HASSAN: Today is when the Lebanese community comes together to save their beautiful city, Beirut. What happened yesterday is a huge disaster, something that we have never witnessed before. And it's time for the government to leave. They are corrupt.

VANEK SMITH: Wow. Neda, how has the government responded? And I know that Lebanon has pretty limited resources. Are they getting help?

HOMSI: Yeah. A lot of offers are coming in from other countries internationally. Lebanon is really going to have to rely on international aid because of the state of its economy. So France has especially offered assistance, and other aid groups, some of them that have already had staff that's been injured or killed in the blast, are gearing up to offer medical and other kinds of aid. But it's a massive effort that some Lebanese officials already are saying is going to cost billions of dollars. And we don't know where that money is going to come from. It's going to be a really long and tough road for Lebanon ahead.

VANEK SMITH: That is Nada Homsi in Beirut.

Thank you, Nada.

HOMSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.