Cold, homeless, grieving: Turks express frustration at earthquake relief effort

Key points

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a major criticism over response.
  • More than 298,000 people have been made homeless.
  • War-torn Syria admits it has a “lack of capabilities” to help its people.
  • The combined death toll in Turkey and Syria is more than 11,500.
  • Opposition figures, academics and NGOs have protested the restriction of Twitter amid already difficult communication.

Kahramanmaras/Antakya: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted there were problems with his government’s initial response to a devastating earthquake in southern Turkey amid anger from those left destitute and frustrated over the slow arrival of rescue teams.

Erdogan, who contests an election in May, said on a visit to the disaster zone on Wednesday that operations were now working normally and promised no one would be left homeless, as the combined death toll across Turkey and neighbouring Syria climbed above 11,500.

Rescue team members search for people in destroyed buildings in Elbistan, southern Turkey.Credit:AP

Across a swath of southern Turkey, people sought temporary shelter and food in freezing winter weather, and waited in anguish by piles of rubble where family and friends might still lie buried.

Rescuers were still digging out some people alive, and finding others dead. Many Turks have complained about a lack of equipment, expertise and support to rescue those trapped – sometimes even as they could hear cries for help.

“Where is the state? Where have they been for two days? We are begging them. Let us do it, we can get them out,” Sabiha Alinak said near a snow-covered collapsed building where her young relatives were trapped in the city of Malatya.

Search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area – including a region isolated by Syria’s ongoing civil war – that many people were still awaiting help.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a survivor speak as he visits the city centre destroyed by an earthquake in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey.Credit:AP

Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain necessities was closing rapidly.

At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.

“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England.

“The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74 per cent, after 72 hours it is 22 per cent and by the fifth day it is 6 per cent.”

Rescuers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem near the Turkish border, Idlib province, Syria.Credit:AP

There were similar scenes and complaints in neighbouring Syria, whose north was also hard hit by Monday’s huge quake.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations admitted the government had a “lack of capabilities and lack of equipment” but blamed this on more than a decade of civil war in his country and Western sanctions.

Death toll sure to rise

Hundreds of collapsed buildings in many cities have become tombs for people who had been asleep in the homes when the quake hit in the early morning.

In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens of bodies, some covered in blankets and sheets and others in body bags, were lined up on the ground outside a hospital.

Melek, 64, said she had seen no rescue teams. “We survived the earthquake, but we will die here due to hunger or cold.”

Families in southern Turkey and in Syria spent a second night in the freezing cold.

Many in the disaster zone had slept in their cars or in the streets under blankets, fearful of going back into buildings shaken by the 7.8 magnitude tremor – Turkey’s deadliest since 1999 – and by a second powerful quake hours later.

People stand by collapsed buildings in Golbasi, in Adiyaman province, southern Turkey.Credit:AP

The reported death toll rose to 9057 in Turkey on Wednesday. In war-wrecked Syria, the confirmed toll climbed to more than 2500 overnight, according to the government and a rescue service operating in the rebel-held north-west.

Turkish authorities released footage of rescued survivors, including a young girl in pyjamas, and an older man covered in dust; an unlit cigarette clamped between his fingers as he was pulled from the debris.

Turkish officials say some 13.5 million people were affected in an area spanning roughly 450 kilometres from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east. In Syria, it killed people as far south as Hama, 250 kilometres from the epicentre.

Some of those killed in Turkey were refugees from Syria’s war. Their body bags arrived at the border in taxis, run-down vans and in piles atop flatbed trucks to be taken to final resting places in their homeland.

More than 298,000 people have been made homeless and 180 shelters for the displaced had been opened, Syrian state media reported, apparently referring to areas under government control, not those held by other factions.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a survivor hug each other as he visits the city centre destroyed in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey. Credit:AP

In Syria’s Aleppo, staff at the Al-Razi hospital attended to a man with bruised eyes who said more than a dozen relatives including his father and mother were killed when the building they were in collapsed.

“We were 16 and 13 of us died. My brother, one-and-a-half-year-old niece and I got out. Thank God,” he said. “My father, my mother, my brother, his wife and their four children. The wife and two kids of my brother who got out with me also died.”

Missing Australians

Four Australians are unaccounted for as the federal government sends a search and rescue team to assist recovery efforts. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is providing consular assistance to the families of the nationals who were where the catastrophe struck and to about 40 other Australians and their families who were also in the area.

Australia will also deploy an urban search and rescue team to Turkey to help local authorities.

Erdogan, who has declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces and sent in troops to help, arrived in Kahramanmaras to view the damage and see the rescue and relief effort.

Speaking to reporters, with the wail of ambulance sirens in the background, Erdogan said there had been problems with roads and airports but “we are better today”.

“We will be better tomorrow and later. We still have some issues with fuel … but we will overcome those too,” he said.

Later, he condemned criticism of the government’s response. “This is a time for unity, solidarity. In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest,” Erdogan told reporters on his arrival in the southern province of Hatay.

Nevertheless, the disaster will pose a challenge to Erdogan in the May election that was already set to be the toughest fight of his two decades in power.

Any perception that the government is failing to address the disaster properly could hurt his prospects. On the other hand, analysts say, he could rally national support around the crisis response and strengthen his position.

Twitter blocked in Turkey

Twitter has been restricted in Turkey on Wednesday, the Netblocks internet observatory said, two days after the earthquake.

“Real-time network data show Twitter has been restricted in Turkey; the filtering is applied on major internet providers and comes as the public come to rely on the service in the aftermath of a series of deadly earthquakes,” said Netblocks, which tracks connectivity across the globe.

Users of the platform including opposition figures, academics and non-governmental organisations protested the move, with communications already difficult in the quake zone due to limited reception.

“How come Twitter is restricted on a day communication saves lives? What kind of ineptitude?” the head of the DEVA opposition party, Ali Babacann said on Twitter.

Since the quake hit on Monday, Turks have tweeted information about loved ones they cannot reach, reports of collapsed buildings in the area and co-ordination for aid.

Bodies in blankets

The quake toppled thousands of buildings including hospitals, schools and apartment blocks, injured tens of thousands and left countless people homeless.

Entire streets in Kahramanmaras, near the epicentre, were reduced to rubble, drone footage showed, with plumes of smoke rising from fires across the town. Hundreds of tents were set up as shelter in a sporting venue.

Reuters journalists saw around 50 bodies draped in blankets on the floor of a sports hall.

In Syria, the relief effort is complicated by a conflict that has partitioned the nation and wrecked its infrastructure.

Rescue workers have struggled to reach some of the worst-hit areas, held back by destroyed roads, poor weather and a lack of heavy equipment. Some areas are without fuel and electricity.

Reuters, AP

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