Public Safety Committees in Lattakia: Chaos, Corruption, Nepotism
Two months after the February 06 earthquake, the public safety committees in the Lattakia governorate do not appear to be performing their duties effectively. Affected residents have accused the committees of neglecting to inspect damaged buildings, disorganisation, and corruption.
Facing heavy pressure to inspect damaged buildings right after the earthquake, people soon turned to any influential relatives they had in the state, security agencies and the military or resorted to bribing officials to pressure the committees and direct them to inspect their homes early on.
According to a local correspondent for The Syria Report, the earthquake damaged a recently constructed four-storey building in the Project No. 10 area in Lattakia. After a long wait, building residents lost hope that the committees would inspect it. Fearing the possibility of aftershocks worsening the damage, residents decided to hire a consulting engineer from the Engineers’ Syndicate to assess the damage at their own expense. The engineer advised the building residents to reinforce one cracked central column, which they did promptly. Residents split the cost of this work, with each flat paying SYP 2 million. After they finished, they learned that a committee was on its way to inspect the building. At this point, the residents asked for help from a high-ranking security official to intervene and prevent the committee from inspecting the building.
When the committees inspect damaged buildings, they are meant to classify them into three main categories: slightly damaged, severely damaged, and in need of reinforcement, or at risk of collapse and in need of demolition. Slightly damaged buildings pose no danger to residents and can be repaired without a permit or an engineering study. However, the committee must provide a descriptive report for severely damaged buildings. The relevant local administrative unit then requests another committee, composed of experienced engineers from the Engineers’ Syndicate, to conduct a study for reinforcement. Based on that study, the administrative unit grants a permit for reinforcing the building. Finally, for buildings at risk of collapse that the committees deem necessary to demolish, they seal their entrances with red wax, evacuate the residents and prohibit them from returning home.
Ward lives in a fourth-storey flat in a building in the Project No. 7 area of Lattakia. The earthquake cracked a main column in his building. Residents waited for the safety committees to inspect the building to no avail. Ward visited the Lattakia governorate building on several different days, submitting official requests for inspection more than once and to more than one department. When he lost hope of receiving a response, Ward paid a bribe of SYP 300,000 to one of the committee members, obtaining a report stating that the building was only slightly damaged. The report was issued without any actual inspection of the building. Based on the report, residents paid themselves for reinforcement work. According to Ward, no one visited the building to inspect it, neither from the committees, the Syndicate, nor the governorate, and no one questioned them about the reinforcement work they carried out.
Meanwhile, the building where Marwa lives with her husband in rural Lattakia was damaged in the quake. A public safety committee inspected the building and found it severely damaged and needing reinforcement. However, the committee asked the couple to refrain from reinforcing it themselves but to wait for the municipality to refer the building to an engineering expertise committee to study the best reinforcement method and obtain a permit. However, Marwa and her husband went to an engineer they know who works on one of the committees to change the report and re-classify the building as only slightly damaged. As a result, they could reinforce the structure without waiting for the engineering expertise committee.
Things were no better in cases where the committees inspected damaged buildings, categorised them as needing minor reinforcement, but then took no clear subsequent actions, leaving the residents confused. For example, Salma, a widow and mother of a special needs child, lives in a damaged house in rural Lattakia. A committee of municipal engineers visited her home, saw the cracks and deemed the house safe for her to remain during reinforcement work. According to a committee member, the house would be safe if there are no future earthquakes. However, for Salma, the repair process is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, committee members said neither the municipality nor any other official body would do the reinforcement work. Though there is a chance Salma could be partially compensated if she pays for the reinforcement herself, the compensation mechanism has not been clarified.
Rizq owns several apartments within a building in an informal neighbourhood of Lattakia. Cracks appeared in several parts of the building after the quake. So he turned to engineer friends and decided to reinforce the building himself at his own expense. During the reinforcement work, one of the governorate committees tried to intervene and stop him. However, Rizq brandished a personal weapon at the committee members and threatened them not to approach.
In another case, the third and top storey of a building owned by retired military general Abu Haidar in a rural Lattakia village partially collapsed. Cracks also appeared on the remaining floors. Abu Haidar hired an engineer and a work crew from Damascus that reinforced the building and rebuilt the collapsed part within a week of the earthquake. The village municipality did not intervene in Abu Haidar’s case. Still, it prevented other residents who didn’t have such connections from repairing their properties without permission.
Meanwhile, in Lattaka city, Wafaa owns an apartment in a building that the committees sealed with red wax and classified as at risk of collapse and need of demolition. After losing hope of receiving any compensation or alternative housing, the building residents decided to reinforce the building out of pocket and paid SYP 3 million to bribe the committee to change the building’s classification to damaged and requiring reinforcement in their report, the committee agreed to the change.