Boosting Beirut response with the Cloud

by Vincent Matak

When the devastating blast in the Port of Beirut ripped through the city, waves of shock swept through the city throwing thousands of lives and hundreds of WFP staff into chaos.

The destruction at Beirut’s port following a huge chemical explosion destroyed grain silos and ruined about 1 month’s worth of stock. Photo: WFP/Malak Jaafar.

Just a kilometre away, the WFP Lebanon office was shattered. Staff were injured, office equipment reduced to scraps, and thousands of sensitive files and data points — critical for sustaining operations in the politically and economically turbulent country — seemed lost forever.

“It was such a mess,” recalls Hassan Akil, an IT officer for WFP Lebanon. “So many of us were traumatized and didn’t know what to do. But we had to start somewhere because people needed help.”

‘We thought we lost everything’

Over 200 people died in the explosion, with an additional 6,500 injured. The economic fallout was so severe that it caused a surge in demand for immediate food assistance — hundreds of thousands lost their homes or incomes — putting pressure on the fractured field office, still in tatters, to deliver.

“But where do you begin when all your infrastructure is gone?” says Akil. “We thought we had lost everything, and we felt completely lost.”

Executive Direct, David Beasley (1st from left) visits the site with emergency response teams. Photo: WFP/Malak Jaafar.

With that infrastructure went the office’s records, information, and communications flow, along with their ability to assess and deliver on the demand that was overflowing.

But not all was lost.

‘Solution helped save lives’

A back-up solution powered by WFP’s Technology Division was able to fully restore data housed in their damaged devices, providing staff access through the Cloud, without putting themselves at risk by extracting what they could from their ravaged office.

Within a single day, staff had set up at a nearby hotel, where they immediately began assessing needs and delivering life-saving support for those affected by the blast.

Access to these programs and information was critical given the compounding impact of the pandemic and the economic recession on the country, which created vast amounts of secure data the field office was already using to make decisions before the explosion.

“I can say that this solution helped save and improve the lives of so many impacted by this explosion,” adds Akil.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, WFP supported 7,568 people with food parcels in the Karantina, Bourj Hammoud, Gemmayze, Geitawi, and Khandaa El Ghamee neighbourhoods of Beirut. Each food parcel contains around 60kg of food items enough for a family of five for a month.

A WFP-supported communal kitchen in Ashrafiye, a couple of kilometres away from the epicentre of the blast. Due to the country’s lockdown measures volunteers are cooking at this kitchen and using all means available to deliver the food door by door directly to the affected people. Photo: WFP/Edmond Khoury.

WFP also distributed 224 parcels to local partners and NGOs to support communal kitchens providing more than 3,000 hot meals per day to affected families and volunteers cleaning up the neighbourhoods.

Within weeks, WFP delivered more than 12,500 metric tons of flour to help stabilize supply in the country without disrupting local markets. Staff were also able to set up mobile storage units for the international and local communities.

In addition, WFP supplied local organizations with materials to cook hot food for families in immediate need.

‘Virtual mirror’ helps WFP react immediately

It’s thanks in part to WFP’s cloud-based technology, which acts as a virtual mirror, creating a complete backup of the services available in the office and making them accessible directly from the cloud.

“If the explosion happened and we didn’t have this, we’d still be struggling with physical infrastructure on the ground in Beirut,” adds Phil Jones, WFP workplace management team lead. “Our teams wouldn’t be able to work, and the lives of so many in need would be in jeopardy.”

This kind of transformation to digital technology enables the organization to react immediately and guarantee business continuity in the face of a disaster — an essential part of WFP’s work.

“WFP’s IT team truly showed what preparedness means in practice. Their intervention really made a difference for the Country Office and Surge Team’s ability to provide a swift response to the Beirut blast,” says Sune Kent, WFP Lebanon’s Deputy Country Director. “With accurate data restored and retrieved on-hand, WFP was able to immediately shape its response as humanitarian needs were growing.”

Story by Vincent Matak, Communications Officer, Technology Division

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