When almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, it caused a humanitarian catastrophe that killed more than 200 people and wounded tens of thousands.
In less than two days, American airmen were on the ground in Lebanon, delivering critical supplies. The swift reaction undoubtedly saved lives, said Stephanie Hammond, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs. Stability and humanitarian affairs personnel began working on the situation as the smoke from the explosion in Beirut was dissipating.
"Minutes after the explosion happened, actually, we swung into action, working really closely with [U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command]," Hammond said during an interview in her Pentagon office.
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper followed developments in the stricken Mediterranean city and "really reiterated to the department that we needed to support the Lebanese people in this desperate time of need," she said.
The American airmen were among the first to arrive. They brought food, water and critically needed medical supplies. The medical supplies were especially important, as many medical centers and providers were affected by the blast, which leveled Beirut's port. Tens of thousands of people were wounded, and Lebanese health care providers were running out of supplies.
The supplies went immediately to the hospitals. "We've heard extremely positive feedback from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the Lebanese government, from the Lebanese armed forces, about how significant the medical supplies have been," Hammond said.
"The Department of Defense is home to the greatest fighting force in the world, but there is another side to what we do," said James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy. "Our dedicated group of civilian and military experts in the Office of Stability and Humanitarian Affairs ensures the department's ability to respond to crises caused by natural disasters, pandemics and conflicts overseas."
The DOD effort is part of the larger U.S. mission to aid Beirut led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, she said, noting that the stability and humanitarian affairs office has an excellent relationship with USAID and the State Department.
In a disaster of this type, speed is critical. The Defense Department can move quickly, and DOD shouldered the mission to get the first critical U.S. aid into Beirut. Now, USAID disaster assistance response teams are in place and working with local officials and nongovernmental organizations to funnel in aid and supplies.
The aid effort is further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. News reports out of Lebanon point to a higher infection rate there since the explosion. The blast leveled the country's main port. The docks, the equipment to load and unload cargo, and the channels were destroyed by the powerful blast, said Joe Catalino, a senior advisor in DOD’s policy office. "Now we will see the second- and third-order effects of this over time," he said.
Normally, distributing the supplies or capabilities would end active U.S. efforts in a foreign country, but this is not a normal situation. "Once there is some form of stability, we would step back, normally," Catalino said. "But here, you still have a few hundred thousand displaced. The transportation infrastructure is destroyed and the health system impacted."
Also, he noted, the Lebanese government has resigned, the Syrian civil war is going on next door, and there are a lot of concerns for the United States in the region. The DOD humanitarian assistance mission will shift to a transitional phase of U.S. government effort to support the people of Lebanon.