Lebanese Americans in Jacksonville saddened, angered by blast in Beirut

Rescue workers and security officers work at the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, in a short televised speech, has appealed to all countries and friends of Lebanon to extend help to the small nation, saying: "We are witnessing a real catastrophe." (AP Photo/Hussein Malla) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BEIRUT, Lebanon – At least 100 people are dead and 300,000 people have been displaced a day after a catastrophic blast in Beirut.

Those numbers are expected to rise as officials in Lebanon search for survivors and investigate what caused a warehouse of fertilizer and other flammable materials to explode Tuesday evening.

Media outlets there are reporting that officials knew of the dangers posed by storing ammonium nitrate at the port but didn’t act. Despite President Donald Trump initially calling the blast an “attack,” U.S. officials said Wednesday there was no evidence of that at the moment.

The anger and sadness stretch the globe including in Jacksonville, where there’s a sizable Lebanese American community.

“I got so scared, I got antsy because I wanted to get in touch with my parents,” Haisaam Barakat told News4Jax.

The business owner, who’s lived in America since he was 19, grew up in Beirut and still visits relatives there often.

“Our house is about 20 miles away from the blast and we had damage done to our house,” he said. “My mom was home alone. She was really, really scared.”

He said it reminded her of the civil war there about 30 years prior.

His sister-in-law lives 10 miles away. The explosion, caught on her surveillance camera, blew through her windows and doors.

Her home and countless more are now in shambles.

“Also, the fumes that are behind it, Barakat said. “Not only the size of the blast, but now we have all these chemicals that everybody has to be careful and wear masks. And we are in the corona-age so all these things are compounding to create a very dangerous situation.”

Wednesday morning, the priest for Jacksonville’s St. Maron Catholic Church on Bowden Road held a mass in honor of the victims. About 120 Lebanese families are part of the congregation. Across the city, there are hundreds more at local churches and mosques. They are uniting in prayer.

The priest said there would be prayer vigil masses Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 10 a.m. and Sunday morning during regular services.

President Trump and other world leaders are showing support.

“The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon,” Trump said Tuesday evening during a news conference on the coronavirus response.

Meanwhile, in North Florida, people are vowing to be there as Beirut rebuilds.

“They need all the help they can get,” Barakat said. “First of all we need to provide shelter for many of the people who lost their houses. We are working with the Red Cross and different organizations to bring water, shelter, clothing, medicine anything they need to bring back their lives.”

Barakat said the Red Cross was on the ground working to help people affected by the blast. He also said local Lebanese Americans were giving to an organization called Children of Mary, which is part of the disaster response.

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