Freezing and starving

Turkey-Syria earthquake victims struggle to survive as poor weather conditions hinder rescue and relief efforts.

(Al Jazeera)

The sound of hurrying hands and heavy equipment working to find signs of life continues more than six days since two major earthquakes struck the southeastern region of Turkey along the border with Syria on February 6.

In battle-bruised, rebel-held Idlib, the earthquakes flattened numerous buildings, trapping residents under debris and exposing them to freezing temperatures.

Oussama al-Hussein, a coordinator with a healthcare NGO working in the area, told Al Jazeera that rescuers can hear voices under the rubble, but without proper equipment and international assistance, the White Helmets and other local rescue teams are struggling to rescue people.

On Tuesday, four members of a family were rescued from a collapsed building. In a video released by the White Helmets, the crowd can be heard cheering as each child was pulled out alive.

These hopeful moments punctuate the many silent searches which have ended in the recovery of a body. With each hour that passes, hopes for further rescues are diminishing.

Delays in international aid and assistance due to closed borders and roads destroyed by the tremors have compounded the challenges.

People are completely destroyed from inside, first by the years of war and now by this. They are desperate and hopeless. We need medications, all kind of ready-to-eat food, hygiene kits.

by Oussama al-Hussein, coordinator with a healthcare NGO

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, transport a casualty from the rubble of buildings in the village of Azmarin in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Surviving freezing conditions

Rescuers are racing against time, working in the snow, rain and freezing temperatures, dipping to minus 8 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit), to dig through the remains of buildings flattened by the earthquakes.

More bad weather is expected to hit the region, further hampering rescue and relief operations. Collapsed buildings and destroyed roads have also made it difficult to locate survivors and get crucial aid into affected areas. Several airports have also been closed after being damaged by the earthquakes.

(Al Jazeera)

We are safe as much as a tent can protect us. The children are cold at night, I have a three-year-old son, he is scared as soon as the tent shakes, and runs towards me asking, is it happening again?

by Durna, Caglar - a Kahramanmaras resident

The first earthquake’s epicentre, about 33 kilometres (20 miles) from the city of Gaziantep, a major city and provincial capital in southeastern Turkey, is home to millions of Syrian refugees living in southern Turkey. Thousands of residents have been left without shelter in freezing temperatures.

Mouaz Haj Bakri, a Syrian living in the United States, said he has lost about 40 family members in the earthquakes. Most of them were displaced and living in the city of Antakya in Turkey’s Hatay province, which has been almost entirely destroyed.

The city is unliveable. Those who are still there either cannot leave or are only staying to find their loved ones. People are sleeping outside their destroyed houses, making a fire at night with a ring of people around it, because they are waiting to dig out the bodies. They want to bury their dead.

by Mouaz Haj Bakri

“My cousins who are still alive can see the feet of their [deceased] nieces and their brothers and sisters but they are unable to remove them from under the rubble,” said Mouaz. “It has been a challenge to ask the Turkish authorities for rescuers and resources to remove the bodies. My family has been doing that themselves. One cousin was removing the rubble with his hands. No one else helped them. This has been the story of many Syrians [in Antakya].”

The situation in Syria, he said, is even worse.

“People in north Syria are cold, hungry and defeated,” Mouaz said, “We are talking about displaced people who already lost their homes once and have been made homeless again. People are going to die from the cold, and no one is going to count them among the earthquake [casualties]. People will die from hunger, and no one will count them. They need so much help.”

How many people have been affected?

The World Health Organization has warned that more than 23 million people could be affected by the massive earthquakes which have devastated Turkey and Syria.

Interactive_Staying Warm_Turkey_Syria_population map revised
(Al Jazeera)
(Al Jazeera)

In Turkey, a state of emergency has been declared in 10 provinces along its southern border with Syria.

The disaster-struck provinces — Kahramanmaras, Adana, Adiyaman, Osmaniye, Hatay, Kilis, Malatya, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir and Gaziantep — comprise an area of about 100,000 square kilometres (38,000 square miles).

About 15 million people live in these 10 provinces, of whom more than 1.7 million are Syrian refugees from across the border, according to United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Interactive_Staying Warm_Turkey_Syria_population map
(Al Jazeera)

Nihat is a survivor in Gaziantep, at a relief centre where food, water, and winter gear are being handed out. She told Al Jazeera correspondent Stefanie Dekker that they have blankets to keep them warm, but no one can sleep because of the immense grief engulfing them.

We lost our homes; we lost our neighbours. It is very difficult. We have blankets, drinks, but people are not sleeping here because everyone has lost a friend, a neighbour, and more people are dying. When the earthquake took place, I thought that an atomic bomb was dropped on the city; it is an indescribable feeling.

by Nihat - earthquake survivor from Gaziantep

The sheer number of destroyed buildings has made it difficult to gauge how many people might still be trapped under rubble. Rescuers have to pick through the debris with excavators, sometimes using only their hands, asking for quiet in the crowd so they can listen for any faint sound that might indicate life below.

In Syria, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 10.9 million people have been affected across the northwestern governorates of Hama, Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo and Tartous.

Parts of northwestern Syria are under the control of either government or rebel forces. Years of war have decimated critical infrastructure. The majority of the country’s displaced people are concentrated here, with more than 90 percent of the region’s population already reliant on humanitarian aid to meet their most basic needs.

How widespread is the destruction?

Thousands of buildings, including schools and hospitals, have been damaged in Turkey and Syria.

An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 buildings have collapsed in Turkey as a result of Monday’s quakes. In some areas near the epicentres, entire neighbourhoods have been flattened.

The earthquakes also caused a massive fire at Iskenderun port on Turkey’s southern coast, setting hundreds of shipping containers on fire and causing immense damage before the blaze was finally extinguished.

In Syria, more than 400 buildings have been completely destroyed, more than 1,300 severely damaged, and thousands more structures damaged in northwest Syria, according to the White Helmets.

More than a decade of war had already weakened infrastructure in the region, and residential complexes that were built to accommodate the many displaced people in the northwest were completely flattened. Older residential neighbourhoods have been ruined in Salqin and Harem in Idlib governorate, as well as al-Atareb and Jandaris in Aleppo.

This handout satellite picture taken on February 7 shows Kahramanmaras two days after a strong earthquake struck the region. [AFP Photo / Handout / Planet Labs PBC]

Living on a fault line

Monday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake was followed by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake less than 12 hours later, and hundreds of powerful aftershocks.

The region is a hotbed of seismic activity due to its location near several major fault lines.

Most of Turkey is on the Anatolian plate, and is surrounded by the Eurasian, African and Arabian plates.

These earthquakes occurred along the East Anatolian Fault zone, caused by movement between the Arabian and Anatolian plates.

Interactive_Staying Warm_Turkey_Syria_Earthquake_Fault Lines
(Al Jazeera)

How intense were the earthquakes?

Danish Ahmed, a resident in Gaziantep, was up late reading a book when he felt the room begin to sway. Danish and his wife live on the 10th floor of a 30-storey building. Initially, he said he wasn’t worried because the building was newly constructed, designed to withstand earthquakes.

But the shaking went on for far too long, he said, and he began to feel scared. The couple grabbed their passports, and ran down the building and out into the snow.

It seemed like the whole city was out on the streets. Lots of people moved their cars away from tall buildings. Everyone was on edge. They still are.

by Danish Ahmed, a resident in Gaziantep

The February 6 earthquakes were especially severe because they were both strong — registering as “major” seismic events on the Richter scale — and shallow.

Shallow earthquakes are generally more destructive, as shaking is more intense in earthquakes that hit closer to the surface. In deeper quakes, seismic waves lose energy as they travel farther up to the surface.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) classifies shallow earthquakes as between 0 and 70km (44 miles) deep. These earthquakes struck at depths of 18km (11 miles) and 10km (6 miles) each.

The tremors were felt by millions of people across the region up to 1,000km (621 miles) away.

INTERACTIVE How big were the Turkey-Syria earthquakes
(Al Jazeera)

How earthquake-resilient is Turkey?

Turkey has experienced many significant earthquakes throughout its history. Among its deadliest was the magnitude 7.8 Erzincan earthquake of 1939 which killed about 33,000 people, and the magnitude 7.6 Izmit earthquake of 1999 in which about 18,000 people died.

Besides being earthquake-prone, Turkey is among the countries with the highest number of fatalities due to earthquakes, according to the International Disasters Database (EM-DAT).

Not counting Monday’s disaster, the country has had more than 80,000 deaths from earthquakes in the past century.

Interactive_Staying Warm_Turkey_Syria_Earthquake_4_Earthquake global deaths
(Al Jazeera)

Building regulations

Following the 1999 earthquake, a new building code was developed to ensure built structures met stricter safety standards.

“On paper, Turkey’s seismic design code is up to global standards — it is actually better than most,” Sinan Turkkan, civil engineer and president of Turkey’s Earthquake Retrofit Association, told Al Jazeera. “In practice, however, the situation is very different.”

In 2017, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects warned that as many as seven million buildings out of a total 20 million structures across the country were at risk of collapsing in the event of an earthquake.

Professor Okan Tuysuz, a geological engineer from Istanbul Technical University, believes the extent of the damage sustained on Monday was caused by a combination of factors including negligence, buildings not being up to standards and the sheer force of the earthquakes. “We are dealing with truly massive earthquakes here,” Tuysuz told Al Jazeera.

Turkkan shares the same opinion. “Not only were the earthquakes extremely forceful, but they also hit in quick succession,” he explained. “Many buildings only received light to medium damage in the first quake but collapsed after the second.”

Still, experts underlined that a tragedy on this scale was not unavoidable.

“However strong, no earthquake could have caused this much damage if all buildings were up to standard,” Turkkan said.

“For years we held conferences, wrote reports and sent them to local authorities,” Tuysuz lamented, referring to efforts to prepare for the eventuality of big earthquakes striking cities like Hatay and Gaziantep. “No one listened.”

If you want to learn about how to donate to the Turkey and Syria earthquake disaster response, go here.

Source: Al Jazeera