Lebanon's Renewal Is Dashed in Weeks

Rebuilding could top $2.5 billion, officials say, as recent repairs from past war are wiped out.

August 13, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — When Lebanon breaks, Fadl Chalak gets called to fix it. Over the years, he's seen it all: the destroyed roads and bridges, the displaced families, the blown-up buildings. Still, he says, nothing in three decades of war and recovery prepared him for the ferocity of Israel's month-long bombing campaign.

"I've never seen so much destruction in such a very short time," Chalak, president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, said last week as the government calculated infrastructure damage at more than $2.5 billion.

Overall losses to housing and small business are likely to exceed the total for the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, the government says. A quarter of Lebanon's population has been forced out of their homes, and as many as 200,000 of the estimated 1 million evacuees may have no home to return to when the war is over, the Economy and Trade Ministry says.

"I have seen all the wars," said Chalak, who was instrumental in the recently completed reconstruction of downtown Beirut. "I'm supposed to have some experience in these catastrophes. But I've never seen a war like this in intensity."

The government review shows that Israel has largely avoided some types of targets: major power plants, water treatment facilities, telephone systems, central government buildings and most factories. The bombing has focused on Shiite areas of southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs.

Although roads and bridges have been hit all over the capital, most of the damage in Beirut has been limited to a single square mile of the southern suburbs: The neighborhoods of Bir Abed and Hrat Hreik. An almost daily barrage of missiles, bombs and gunship artillery has systematically removed Hezbollah's headquarters, its schools, clinics, sports centers and homes, along with the homes of thousands of civilians who live nearby.

Lebanese officials say their early estimates of the damage extend only through Aug. 1 and do not fully take into account what is likely to be catastrophic damage to houses, hospitals, schools, water and sewage systems and power lines in southern Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa Valley, an area largely inaccessible to inspectors from Beirut.

Sitting last week in his office at the handsome Ottoman-era building that is the seat of Lebanon's government, only a 15-minute drive from city blocks that are in ruins, Chalak was trying to summon the energy to start over -- finding the bank loans, manpower, construction materials and the will to turn another generation of rubble back into buildings.

"Do you want me to be optimistic, after spending my whole life building and rebuilding grand buildings, and we thought a country came out of it?" Chalak said.

Dressed in an elegant gray suit that looked as if it hadn't been changed in several days, he sat motionless on a sofa as a parade of engineers with blueprints and reports peered in. His secretary worriedly carried in messages from the half a dozen men camped outside his door. Mostly, he waved them away, staring without expression at the coffee table in front of him.

"We have spent our whole lives doing this reconstruction. On a personal level, I can't tell you how many houses I have lost," he said.

"We rebuilt the country so many times, I'm sick of it. I sit on my balcony every night and the bombs start falling, and sometimes I just don't give a damn."

A survey compiled by his organization, based on inspections in central and northern Lebanon and telephone calls to engineers and municipal officials in the ravaged south, showed the worst damage to the traffic system, with more than 120 bridges destroyed and $83 million in damage to roadways.

Among the bridges destroyed was the well-known Mdeirij Bridge connecting Mt. Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley on the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"A beautiful bridge, its columns 70 meters, it's one of a kind in the whole Middle East. Why would they destroy such a bridge?" said Chalak. "They could have bombed the beginning and the end and stopped the traffic. But they made a point to bomb this bridge several times."

Replacing it will cost $65 million, engineers estimate.

The three airports in Lebanon sustained damage totaling $55 million, but terminal buildings were spared and the biggest repairs will be to runways and fuel storage reservoirs, authorities said.

Power plants also were spared, although a large fuel tank serving the Jiye generating plant south of Beirut was hit, sending 20,000 tons of fuel pouring into the sea and causing about $80 million in damage. Repairing electrical substations and transmission lines will cost about $128 million.

Among about a dozen factories bombed was the country's largest dairy plant, Liban Lait, which produces yogurt and cheese under license from France's Groupe Danone, and a large tissue-producing factory owned by a Palestinian Christian who lives in Jordan.

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