In the struggles of the Turkish earthquake relief
ANTAKYA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Kevser said she could hear her two sons trapped under the rubble of their collapsed home in the Turkish city of Antakya, but for two days she was unable to find an emergency ladder to rescue them to arrange.
“Everyone says they are not responsible. We can’t figure out who is responsible,” she said Tuesday last week while standing on a downtown street where at least a dozen other buildings had collapsed. “I begged and begged for just a crane to lift the concrete.”
“Time’s running out. A crane, for heaven’s sake.”
When Reuters returned to the street a day later, neighbors said no more survivors had been pulled from the rubble of the building.
Many in Turkey say more people could have survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the south of the country and neighboring Syria a week ago if emergency response had been quicker and better organised.
Reuters spoke to dozens of local residents and overwhelmed first responders, who expressed their bewilderment at the lack of water, food, medicine, body bags and cranes in the disaster zone in the days after the quake – leaving hundreds of thousands of people to fend for themselves in the depths of the quake winter
The death toll in both countries surpassed 37,000 on Monday, making it one of the world’s worst natural disasters this century and Turkey’s deadliest earthquake since 1939.
“The general problem here is organization, especially in the healthcare field,” Onur Naci Karahanci, a doctor working in Adiyaman, southeastern Turkey, said on a call from the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the professional association for doctors. He said there weren’t enough body bags for the dead, especially in the first two days after the quake.
In the cities of Antakya and Kahramanmaras, near the quake’s epicenter, Reuters reporters saw very few rescue teams in the first 48 hours.
Some survivors said they tried unsuccessfully to contact Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and ended up asking local teams to rescue their loved ones from the rubble – only to learn that such requests are handled through AFAD’s coordination centers have to go, witnesses told Reuters.
Asked about the rescue effort, AFAD’s press department referred the news agency to the Home Office, saying its teams were busy on the ground. The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since 2009, AFAD has been tasked with coordinating disaster relief and relief efforts in Turkey through its 7,300 staff and more than 600,000 volunteers, as well as other Turkish and foreign groups.
The AFAD said in its regular public briefing on Saturday that more than 218,000 AFAD responders, police officers, gendarmerie, soldiers, volunteers and other personnel were deployed to the earthquake zone.
However, top AFAD officials have not publicly addressed criticism from some local residents of their slow response.
Two experts consulted by Reuters partially blamed the delays on the centralization of contingency measures under AFAD by President Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
These included curtailing the military’s freedom to deploy its troops without direct direction from civilian authorities and pulling out other first responders like the Red Crescent and the AKUT search and rescue group, they said.
Hetav Rojan, a Copenhagen-based security adviser to Danish authorities and an expert on the region, said Turkey’s politics and governance under the ruling AK party had “pulled towards centralization”.
“But centralization is bad in disaster management,” he said. “Top-down implementation hampers the effectiveness of the response. Local entities should be mandated to act according to local needs. This is not happening in Turkey.”
Erdogan’s office did not respond to requests for comment. A senior official, who asked not to be identified, said authorities could have been better prepared by stockpiling more first aid supplies, medicines and blankets in warehouses in a region known to be earthquake-prone.
The president, who faces a tight election this year after two decades in power, acknowledged last week that search-and-rescue efforts have not been as swift as the government would like, partly due to inclement weather and damaged roads that are causing problems early movements in the vast area impeded span 450 km (280 miles).
Erdogan, who rose to prominence more than two decades ago in part for his criticism of the response to a major 1999 earthquake, has dismissed criticism of his own government’s response this month.
UN Secretary General Martin Griffiths, speaking in Kahramanmaras on Saturday, described Turkey’s disaster relief efforts as “extraordinary” given the historic magnitude of the quake. “In my experience, people are always disappointed at first,” he said in an apparent reference to criticism.
Some opposition politicians have increasingly pointed the finger at the AFAD’s lack of preparation.
A Reuters-verified report by AFAD on its response to a much smaller 5.9-magnitude quake in northwestern Turkey in November acknowledged that its vehicles and resources were insufficient to deal with a larger disaster. The quake injured 98 people but claimed no fatalities.
The report found that AFAD was struggling to find suitable people to respond to the November 23 quake and that its local coordination was poor as administrators were not fully informed of the emergency plan. An improvised team of 300 teachers and imams lacked expertise and damage assessment errors.
“Disaster groups were unprepared, AFAD centers were mis-selected, and there was insufficient coordination and collaboration between institutions,” the report said. It noted that more drills were needed to prepare for disasters.
Referring to the report, Kemal Kilcdaroglu, leader of the main opposition party, said even more damaging than the magnitude of last week’s quake was the “lack of coordination, lack of planning and incompetence”.
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment on what steps were taken following the report.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said he commissioned the report precisely to improve Turkey’s disaster response.
“Exploiting this matter, deriving political benefit from it, is causing more damage than that caused by the earthquake,” he said Friday.
The AFAD’s 2023 budget was cut by a third to 8.08 billion liras ($429 million), compared to 12.16 billion liras in 2022. The budgets of the entities it helps coordinate, including the police and the Coast Guard, but have been increased.
THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY
After a failed coup in 2016, Erdogan tightened his grip on economic, foreign and defense policies. The government arrested thousands of people and expelled tens of thousands more from state agencies over alleged links to the Gülen movement, which it accused of orchestrating the coup.
Until 2018, AFAD came under the Prime Minister’s Office. But then, when Turkey transitioned to a centralized presidential system with Erdogan as head of state, AFAD fell under the purview of the Interior Ministry, which reports to the presidency.
Nasuh Mahruki, founder of the search and rescue organization AKUT, said the army did not respond early enough to last week’s disaster because it needed civilian approval to mobilize manpower.
In an effort to reduce the influence of Turkey’s powerful military, Erdogan’s government in 2010 rescinded a protocol that allowed the army to conduct internal operations under certain conditions without civilian consent.
“In such colossal events, an overall mass effort is essential,” Mahruki said. “Now the responsibility seems to lie with AFAD, but of course it is not prepared.”
The Ministry of Defense referred questions to the Ministry of the Interior.
In a statement, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said soldiers set up emergency centers in southern Turkey within an hour of the quake, and their ranks had grown to more than 25,000 by Saturday.
Turkey is traversed by two major fault lines and Turks are used to terrible tremors. But they have generally found the state’s emergency response to be effective.
A nurse, who asked not to be named because she feared being removed from her relief work, said she was ready to rush to the earthquake zone on Monday but had to await orders from AFAD and didn’t show up until 40 hours later at.
Arriving in Hatay, the hardest-hit region, she found a field hospital with no water, electricity or portable toilets — and too far from the city of Antakya for many to reach.
She told Reuters she had rushed to every major Turkish disaster in the past 25 years, including the 1999 earthquake that killed more than 17,000 people, but was shocked by the response to last week’s disaster.
“I don’t know why AFAD failed so miserably,” she said.
(Writing by Jonathan Spicer, editing by Daniel Flynn)