Damaged Beirut Heritage House Owners Fear They Won’t be Able to Repair Their Homes

Damaged Beirut Heritage House Owners Fear They Won't be Able to Repair Their Homes

“It’s insane. I’ve been begging for weeks for a tarpaulin and they say I’m top of the list, in danger of collapse, in the red zone, all this stuff and every time they delayed and it never happened,” Reina Sarkis said of her damaged heritage home. 

“I renovated it about 12 years ago and did major work on it to reinforce the building. Then everything blew up.

“It faces the port and the whole building was blown away,” she added. “It didn’t collapse but it’s severely damaged, the roof blew off and part of the structure and no one has done anything about it.”

Since the Aug. 4 blast, heritage NGOs have been in a race against time to secure about 100 heritage buildings at risk from rain damage. When last week’s heavy rain marked the end of summer’s grace period, Sarkis’ 1910 building was among some 20 still open to the elements.

The Directorate General of Antiquities estimates some 650 heritage homes were damaged by the explosion, and have since set in place strict procedures on restoration requirements, with potential sales needing to meet DGA standards. With so many NGOs on the ground and poor communication among organizations, it has meant some homes have been left unattended.

“They put some structural support props to stop the walls falling down and it’s been left since the beginning,” Sarkis said. “I’m sure they have good willing members but they’re not equipped for a disaster of this level in Lebanon.

“The DGA has put a lot of rules and the NGOs say we can’t repair like this or do certain things in a certain way, but at the same time they’re not doing anything for us,” she added. “I’m so angry.”

Repair efforts for heritage houses are being carried out by NGOs and independent individuals, in partnership with the DGA. With the amount of work needed to be done, raising funds – such as UNESCO seeking an initial $30 million out of $300 million needed – in such a short space of time, has been difficult.

“We’re going to keep on with the buildings that are still uncovered and help as much as we can,” architect and Beirut Heritage Initiative member Fadlallah Dagher told The Daily Star. “We’re also working on raising funds for renovation but it’s taking a lot of time. We’ve secured a large amount of buildings but only in a very temporary way and in a few months we’ll have to proceed with restoration, if we have enough funds.

“We’ve had people asking for help and we’ve tried to prioritize the roofs but some also have walls missing or facades gone,” he added. “We’ve started building arches and columns on some building but it’s complicated work because we need the right material: marble balconies, sandstone and lime etc., and it’s a long process. When you have very heavy rain it makes it very difficult to work, but when it stops we’re ready.”

According to DGA director Sarkis Khoury, they’ve managed to cover about 80 of the 100 buildings vulnerable to rain with the limited resources they have.

BHI and the DGA have also had cases where damage has made a building inaccessible or where owners, hoping to find a financially beneficial loophole in DGA regulations, have denied access to their heritage property.

“Many times we’ve voiced a need for funds and have asked for donations of materials to be able to get everything covered in time,” Khoury told The Daily Star. “There are 20-odd buildings remaining that either we’ve not been able to enter because of the owners or lack of access.

“It’s beneficial for these owners to let the building collapse,” he added. “They can start fresh and build a bigger, modern building to make more profit as the real-estate value in this area is high. It’s also a quick way to get rid of long-time [tenants] and then build a new structure.”

Khoury stressed that these cases were being brought before the relevant municipalities in order to gain access and protect the buildings and their inhabitants.

Since the rain started, three buildings in the Ashrafieh and Medawar area have collapsed, including the 120-year-old building formerly housing the renowned Hanna Mitri ice cream shop.

It’s hoped the brief lull in extreme weather over the past few days will allow more of these homes to be sealed before another storm sweeps in.

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