Turkey rocked by a series of devastating earthquakes

Screenshot from The Guardian video report from Turkey

Much of Turkey woke up to devastating news of an earthquake that hit the country's southeastern provinces on February 6. At 4:17 am local time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey's Gaziantep province. Hours later, Turkey's Kahramanmaras province was hit by a 7.5 magnitude quake. Some ten provinces in total have been affected. According to the latest numbers, the death toll has reached 2,921 people, while over fifteen thousand have been injured. WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood said in an interview with AFP these numbers are “likely to increase as much as eight times.” Aerial footage from the locations hit the hardest shows collapsed residential buildings as well as hospitals, municipality facilities, and many other buildings, including Gaziantep Castle, which was more than 2,000 years old.

VI. century #Gaziantep castle could not withstand the earthquake.

Officially more than six thousand buildings have been totally destroyed. The authorities issued a level four warning, the highest level of warning used for emergencies and very serious hazards, which also can include a call for international assistance. Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Authority said as of February 7, 65 countries have responded dispatching in total of 2,660 personnel.

Authorities announced seven days of national mourning. All schools have been canceled for the next two weeks in earthquake-affected areas.

While rescue missions have been dispatched to the affected areas, icy weather conditions made traveling in and out of these areas more difficult than usual. Throughout the day, Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD) reported further earthquakes in the area with the strongest at 1:35 pm and 1:24 pm, local time at 5.6 and 7.6 magnitudes, respectively.

But as people rushed to social media and aid centers across the country, there was plenty of criticism voiced about the lack of emergency response infrastructure as well as interim measures in place for times of crisis.

Journalist Burcu Karakas took it to Twitter to express her disappointment with the paradox. On the one hand, Turkey is building a nuclear power plant, while on the other, poorly built residential buildings are collapsing as people wait for rescuers:

In the country where homes are like paper in earthquake, where people wait for hours by the rubble, there is a nuclear power under construction.

Economy reporter, Mustafa Sonmez tweeted stark budget statistics which indicate that state funds allocated for Diyanet, Turkey's top religious body, exceeded the amount allocated for earthquakes and disaster relief programs.

Another journalist, Gurkan Ozturan tweeted:

I am sad, stressed, we are all grieving since we saw the news and for some of us who felt the first shock. But most of all, I am angry! There was work carried our for 25 years to avoid waking up exactly to this. Why did it fail?

Journalist Fatih Yasli wrote on Twitter that people were “paying the price once again, for profit, tender, and bribery [driven] construction-oriented economy and contractors gang as well as enmity for science and knowledge.”

Among some of the buildings that collapsed were also hospitals prompting further criticism and sadness:

The collapse of the hospital in the earthquake area is a bitter reality that reveals the state we are in… Not to mention the “it was old” statement made afterwards…

Others accused the state authorities of lying about the presence of rescue missions. Hatay has been one of the provinces where the absence of rescuers has fueled more anger.

Barış Atay, Deputy Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), and Hatay member of the parliament visited Hatay from where he shared this update:

I really don't know what to say. Those who say they have reached everywhere. There is no rescue work here. The head of AFAD and the President are both saying they have reached everywhere. People are on their own here using their own efforts. It's an isolated city. The machinery was brought here by the citizens themselves. No one is sending machinery or anything else. There is no rescue team. There is no AFAD. There is no one.

The bitterness and slow response are not new. In a 2021 interview with the news outlet Middle East Eye, Koray Dogan, a co-spokesperson for Turkey's Green Party, said the government was prioritizing the economy at the expense of the environment. There is ample evidence supporting this, such as the massive Kanal Istanbul project or the zoning amnesty law that passed in 2018. Turkey has passed 19 zoning amnesty laws since 1948 which grant pardons (for a fee) to building contractors who fail to meet safety standards. Many of the registered post-earthquake assembly zones for tents and a humanitarian responses have disappeared with the construction boom. In the past, AKP rejected 58 motions by opposition politicians asking for an independent oversight committee to oversee building safety.

Experts from the Chamber of Geological Engineers said they have warned the authorities before about a possible earthquake hitting the area with reports and needs assessments, but no response was provided. Hüseyin Alan, President of the Chamber of Geological Engineers, told Birgun online news platform that “as geologists, they have repeatedly said and wrote that these residential settlements must be prepared for earthquakes. We prepared reports which we shared with the Presidency and relevant ministries. Repeatedly we highlighted the need to take action. But we got not one response. Neither from the Presidency nor from the members of the parliament.”

Also speaking to Birgun, Disaster specialist Kubilay Kaptan said despite early warnings, the current damage caused as a result of the earthquake indicates that these warnings were not taken into account. “Under normal circumstances, given it was already known that these provinces were in earthquake-prone zones and that an earthquake was inevitable, the buildings, the local people, and search and rescue missions should have been ready. But, when we look at whether they were actually prepared, we are seeing they weren't,” said Kaptan in an interview. Kaptan said this state of unpreparedness is indicative of zero oversight of the construction of buildings, of the material used for the construction, and the design of buildings.

A member of the Academy of Sciences, Professor, Dr., Naci Görür, also told local media of repeated warnings made by him and other geologists to the provincial administrators but received no reaction. Two years ago, Görür, spoke of potential earthquake hitting Kahramanmaras on CNN Turk.

Turkey is located in an active seismic zone and has a history of disastrous earthquakes. The worst quake occurred in Erzincan in 1939 when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake left almost 30,000 people dead. In 1999, a 7.5 magnitude quake killed 18,000 people and left 250,000 homeless. The latest major incident happened in Elazığ in 2020, leaving 1,600 people injured and 41 dead. On the anniversary of the 1999 earthquake in 2021, experts warned that if an earthquake of similar magnitude struck the country, even greater damage would be unavoidable, highlighting the lack of governmental preparation or mitigation strategies.

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