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Hopes dim amid frantic earthquake rescues, as Turkey declares state of emergency

President Erdogan says there are more than 53,000 rescuers in the 10 provinces, but locals complain that some neighborhoods are abandoned as hopes run out for people trapped in the debris. 
A woman sits on the rubble of a destroyed building in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, a day after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast, on Feb. 7, 2023.

Kubilay Ozturk was 14 years old when an earthquake of 7.3 magnitudes devastated Turkey’s industrial heartland in 1999. “Though young, I helped the rescuers in Golcuk, where I lived. When I was older, I trained as one with Turkey’s disaster agency AFAD,” the forklift operator told Al-Monitor. 

When he woke up in the early hours of Monday to the news that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had occurred in his hometown of Elbistan, a district of the southern province of Kahramanmaras, he simply got in his car and drove 930 kilometers (577 miles) across Turkey to reach his family, who lived there. He reached his family home just when a second earthquake of 7.6 magnitudes centered in Kahramanmaras’ Elbistan district rocked the region. 

“Miraculously, my family was not hurt,” he said, sputtering with fear that his battery would die before he finished what he wanted to say. “But our whole neighborhood is filled with collapsed buildings. I am a trained rescuer who has helped in many earthquakes, but I have no equipment, and there are no rescue teams I can join here, so I am sitting in my car in the cold, waiting.” 

A few hours later, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in a televised address that the 10 provinces devastated by twin earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks would be placed under a state of emergency for three months. Claiming the state of emergency would ensure that the rescue operations would be carried out swiftly, the president said that 100 billion Turkish liras ($5.3 billion) would be allocated to the region. 

This means that the region will be under a special regime right until Turkey’s all-important presidential and parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for May 14. It can, however, be extended. Many politicians on both the left and the right support the move, saying it is the only way to bring efficient aid to the region. However, critics worry that it allows the president and his Cabinet to bypass parliament in enacting new laws, to limit or suspend rights such as freedom of expression and media, and restrict movement to and from the region. 

Tuesday morning, volunteers — from trained rescuers to doctors — rushed to Istanbul's airport, asking Turkey’s disaster agency to organize their swift transfer to the region. Israel, which has restored relations with Turkey after a decade of strained ties, first sent international rescuers before the European Union, and NATO members also offered aid. One-hundred and fifty people from the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command deployed to the city of Adana to help with operations in the region, then dozens of Israeli doctors, medics, rescue operators and psycho-trauma specialists went to Gaziantep, one of the cities hardest hit by the tremors. Teams from other municipalities — including Izmir, hit by a massive earthquake in 2020, and Istanbul — also joined the rescuers. 

Erdogan said that more than 53,300 search and rescue staff and support personnel were at the zone, their number was increasing by the hour and they had so far saved 8,000 people. "The Turkish army is taking part in the rescue efforts with all its means, including 10 ships and 54 cargo planes, in addition to thousands of personnel," he said in an indirect reply to earlier criticism from the opposition that the military had not been involved. 

But the rescuers have to battle freezing weather, shaky infrastructure and chaos, particularly when darkness sets in. Local footage from prosperous and industrialized Gaziantep to multicultural Hatay shows many of the residents sitting on the streets with small fires. Those who find a tent consider themselves lucky. 

“This will be a better night compared to the one before,” Lutfu Savas, Hatay’s mayor, said Tuesday afternoon, adding that the municipality erected tents so that some of the people who passed last night in their cars could sleep in a tent. The southernmost province of Turkey, Hatay, was largely cut off when the earthquake destroyed the runway of its small airport. 

In Hatay alone, there are between 2,000-2,500 collapsed buildings, many of which have people trapped inside. Ozturk is not alone in complaining that he has not yet set eyes on any rescue team — social media is filled with desperate messages giving addresses of loved ones or their own, beseeching a swift rescue. 

Once the rescuers save the people trapped under the debris, they face a second challenge in finding a place for the injured. Around 15 hospitals in the 10 provinces have been damaged in the earthquakes and aftershocks, according to the Health Ministry. In Hatay, three hospitals — including a recently built town hospital, have been damaged. Doctors from across the country have rushed to the city, but they bitterly complain that there is no medicine, no equipment and no water they can offer patients. As a result, many of the people rescued have been transferred to Istanbul or other cities. 

During the time of publication, the death toll was at 4,544 (nearly 200 more than what Erdogan pronounced mere four hours ago) and the number of injured reached 26,721. 

International organizations have said that the number could fold up by eight times. "We always see the same thing with earthquakes, unfortunately, which is that the initial reports of the numbers of people who have died or who have been injured will increase quite significantly in the week that follows," the WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, told AFP.  

“We have taken 32 dead bodies out of this collapsed building alone,” an aid worker in Adana told Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who visited the earthquake region Tuesday. “We managed to save two. Unfortunately, there are 30 more people trapped, including a small girl whose voice we can hear from here.” 

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