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A dramatic illustration of the power of the explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4 came during a video interview on BBC Arabic.

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Two days after a massive explosion in Beirut, the death toll held at 135 people with 5,000 wounded, yet the estimate on those made homeless increased to 300,000, with losses estimated between $10 and $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron toured the destruction and was met by a crowd chanting at Lebanon’s political leaders: “Revolution” and “The people want to bring down the regime.”

Macron said he wasn’t there to support the “regime” and said French aid would not fall into the “hands of corruption.”

“If reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink,” Macron said, calling for “a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions.”

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As international aid flows into Lebanon, corruption remains a concern in a nation that was already reeling from an economic crisis. Decades after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, residents endure frequent power outages and poor public services. 

Resources:How to help victims in Lebanon

“I lived in Beirut throughout the civil war, but never did I face such an experience,” as the explosion Tuesday, said Nabil Dajani, media studies professor at the American University of Beirut. “I cannot describe the damage I saw.”

Ammonium nitrate in Beirut

An investigation is underway into Tuesday’s blast, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a port warehouse holding 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.

Videos: One explosion, seven different angles

Ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building. It’s a common fertilizer that’s highly explosive.

The Beirut blast had a force of at least 500 tons of TNT, according to a U.S. government source who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on the widespread destruction, said the source who has experience with military explosives.

Lebanon customs department chief Badri Daher said in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.

But said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was “extra work” for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.

The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house arrest.

The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.

Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a broken gate and a hole in the wall of Hangar 12, where the explosive material was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.

Security officials have declined to comment while the investigation is underway. Port officials have rejected the theory in interviews with local media, saying the welders completed their work long before the fire broke out.

History: Even before explosion, Lebanon teetered toward collapse

The country’s health system is also on edge, fighting to contain coronavirus, which could now spread further as the wounded overwhelm hospitals.

St. George University Hospital, one of the major private hospitals in Beirut that had been receiving COVID-19 patients, was out of commission Wednesday after suffering major damage.

At Hôtel Dieu, a university hospital in Beirut, oncologist Hampig Kourieh was finishing his shift when the explosion happened. He described “hundreds of people covered in blood arriving on foot, cars and bikes … the scene was apocalyptic.” The smell of blood, Kourieh said, was so strong it was like “iron was covering the ER.” Three of his own relatives had to be treated in his hospital Tuesday night.

Food security is also a concern. The half-destroyed silos at the port housed about 85% of the nation’s grain. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency quoted Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade, as saying Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more. About 80% of Lebanon’s wheat supply is imported, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The government said most imports will have to come through Tripoli, Libya.

The disaster may have accelerated the country’s coronavirus outbreak, as thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast. Tens of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country’s long-serving politicians are widely seen as being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.

The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people’s life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centers after the blast.

Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.

“There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term,” Abiad said. “We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon.”

The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.

Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 meters (yards) across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the import-reliant country’s grain was stored there.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut says at least one American citizen was killed and several more were injured in Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port.

“We offer our sincerest condolences to their loved ones and are working to provide the affected U.S. citizens and their families all possible consular assistance. We are working closely with local authorities to determine if any additional U.S. citizens were affected,” the embassy said in a statement Wednesday.

Contributing: Nadia al-Faour for USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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