After Earthquake, Turkey Has Proven It Can Get by on Its Own

Among the rubble, and despite the lasting trauma from the quake of 1999, Turkey showed in its predominantly civil response to this week's disaster that it learned its lessons.

EASTERN TURKEY - The earthquake struck eastern Turkey at 1:41 P.M. on Sunday. In Tabanli, the village closest to the epicenter of the temblor, which took place 20 kilometers underground, about half the buildings collapsed and the number of casualties is still unclear. Search-and-rescue teams did not enter Tabanli. The authorities confined themselves to setting up two tents at the entrance to this Kurdish village, and dispatched the huge aid convoy to the city of Ercis, 60 kilometers to the north. There, despite the relatively long distance from the epicenter, a number of buildings collapsed, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people perished.

The authorities decided there was no point in digging under the mud-and-clay houses in Tabanli; anyone who had not been rescued immediately had already suffocated to death. In the underground spaces that were created beneath the concrete-and-brick buildings in Ercis, however, it was possible to find survivors even three and four days after the quake.

Four months ago, the country's Justice and Development Party, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faced general elections in which Erdogan hoped to win a majority that would enable him to rewrite Turkey's constitution. In the weeks preceding the vote, government efforts to improve the country's development picked up momentum; in small villages around the country, roads were paved and homes were hooked up to the electricity grid.

In Tabanli, there's no sign of this momentum. The main, fragile pipeline leading into the village was cut off by the quake, but even before it did not carry water to most of the houses. Now, the residents comfort themselves with the fact that it still functions a little, its water collecting in a small pool by the rutted road connecting the village to the main road. A line of women carrying buckets files past; the livestock waits its turn. Here, the ruling party had no one to invest in. In any case the inhabitants' votes go to the Peace and Democracy Party, the official Kurdish opposition.

In the footsteps of the authorities, media outlets are also ignoring Tabanli. Their vehicles initially gathered around the only large building that collapsed in the provincial capital Van, 20 kilometers to the south, and then continued north to Ercis. There they found more photogenic scenes of destruction: TV stations broadcast live the exciting rescue of Azra Karaduman, the 2-week-old baby girl who was rescued alive from the ruins two days after the quake.

"This isn't Haiti," said a veteran British television reporter, who flew in the middle of the night from his permanent residence in Israel to the remotest area of Turkey.

Indeed, over the past two years, the international media have become accustomed to covering vastly more destructive quakes. Earlier this year it was Fukushima, which provided an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear disaster in Japan - all wrapped up in one package. Last year the quake in Haiti, 7 on the Richter scale, killed more than 300,000 people and left another million homeless. The official count in Turkey: a 7.4 quake and "only" about 500 dead. With the number of missing added, the total will rise past the 1,000 mark.

In Ercis, it is hard to take comfort in comparisons. About 100 buildings in the city of 70,000 have collapsed totally, and hundreds of other dwellings that remain intact are not fit for habitation. The town's main street looks as though a giant marched along it, crushing every fourth or fifth building. Two days after the quake, the electricity supply had not been renewed, and thousands of rescue personnel and dozens of convoys of ambulances, fire trucks, heavy earthmoving equipment and supply trucks were streaming in.

On a side street, three naked corpses lie exposed. A closer look reveals that these are shop-window mannequins from a clothing store that's been destroyed. A woman wrapped in a scarf is trying get them back into the shop, embarrassed by the public display of nudity, even if it is artificial.

"This is my shop," she says defensively, apparently as a reaction to reports of looting in the city. She points to her 9-year-old daughter: "She is blessed. She was in our apartment above the store and my husband managed to get her out in the first few minutes."

The woman has no complaints for now about the way the authorities are dealing with the disaster. Her family is living in the tent camp set up on the first night after the quake at the entrance to the city, there is no shortage of water or food - and she believes in Allah, who will take care of them during the harsh winter.

Under control

Prime Minister Erdogan admitted Wednesday that "there were a number of failures in the first 24 hours" in the authorities' response to the disaster, but by then it seemed as if the situation was under control, at least in Ercis, the hardest-hit city.

Around every building that had collapsed at least two rescue teams were at work, with bulldozers and huge excavation vehicles. Trucks distributed free bread and bottles of water; mobile kitchens prepared thousands of hot meals on disposable trays. The small local hospital was replaced by a huge field hospital in the soccer stadium. The Turkish cellphone companies sent mobile-communications vehicles with antennas that restored phone service and even the banks set up mobile branches with ATMs.

"We learned the lesson of 1999," was the line repeated in every conversation with members of the rescue teams in Ercis. The earthquake that hit the city of Izmit in the country's northwest on August 17, 1999 - which took 17,000 lives, according to official data, but may have actually killed twice that number - is still a national trauma. Last Monday the headlines in Turkey declared a "Second August 17." The Turks still remember the anger at the authorities' ineptness then, their inability to supervise contractors (who built apartment houses in vulnerable areas and skimped on the construction of foundations ), and the incompetence in dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. At that time scores of countries sent rescue teams and aid shipments to the stricken land.

Twelve years later, this is an entirely different country. The army, the most powerful and influential organization in the country then, has been pushed into the background. In Ercis, there is still a big military presence because of the large Kurdish population, but in dealing with the earthquake's effects, the army has confined itself mainly to logistical help. Some soldiers brought in food and water, and helped maintain order, but most of the forces remained at their bases, since rescue activity was under complete civilian control.

Since 1999, the Turkish emergency services have undergone a total overhaul, as seen in the scores of rescue teams brought into the Van area on the first day. Another lesson learned was the wisdom of delegating dealings with the survivors to the Turkish Red Crescent (controlled by the Health Ministry in Ankara ), which equipped itself with thousands of tents and the means for quickly setting up temporary camps. The Red Crescent could be seen in action four months ago, when in a single weekend it succeeded in setting up tents for more than 10,000 refugees from Syria, who crossed the border in their flight from the murderous security forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Turkish accomplishments are that much more remarkable this time also because of the huge distance of the disaster area from government and economic centers, in Ankara and Istanbul, respectively: Flight time from Istanbul to Van is longer than that from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. Some of the aid convoys drove for more than 30 hours on their way from Istanbul.

But what stood out most this week was the presence of a Turkish civil society, in a country that for decades was controlled for all practical purposes by the army. Scores of voluntary organizations, nonprofits and student movements sent aid to stricken areas. On Tuesday morning members of the Turkish branch of Physicians Without Borders were drinking tea near a first-aid tent in the center of Ercis.

"We don't have all that much to do here," admitted one of them. "There are enough medical personnel here and in any case, to our regret, they are hardly finding any injured survivors among the ruins."

Among the volunteers are 2,000 members of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief - the IHH organization, which sponsored three ships in the flotilla to the Gaza Strip in May 2010, among them the Mavi Marmara. Israel sees the IHH as a terror organization because of its links to Hamas, but in Turkey it styles itself as an Islamist charitable and aid organization; after the quake, the group sent in rescue teams and a field kitchen. The organization's Internet site, which writes about Israel's "criminality," also calls for donating online to help its activities in Ercis.

'The right response'

Murat Oksoy, an engineering student at Firat Elazig University, in Elazig, west of the earthquake area, arrived with friends from a mountain-climbing club: They had also taken courses in search and rescue, and flew at their own expense to Van on Monday to help. Oksoy says he is opposed to Erdogan's policies and sharply criticizes the decision not to accept help from experienced groups from foreign countries.

"There isn't a lack of personnel here," he explains, "but the teams don't have the right equipment for work like this. In most places there weren't any saws for cutting through iron and concrete, which could have enabled us to rescue survivors more quickly."

Says Ozgur Monkul, operations officer for the AKUT Search and Rescue Association, who arrived from Istanbul on the first night: "We came here with 16 trained teams, with 28 search dogs, and we rescued six survivors. I think we offered the right response. We have learned the lessons of 1999. Turkey can cope with an event of this size."

Monkul insists there was no political significance to the refusal to accept search-and-rescue personnel from Israel: "We went through joint training in Israel with the Arava rescue team," he relates, "and we have good relations with them. But the Israelis as well as the other foreigners aren't needed here."

Mehmet Babalioglu of a relief organization called Kimse Yok Mu ("Is Anyone There?" ) agrees. "I went to Haiti last year in the Turkish aid delegation," he relates. "If an event of that scale had occurred here, there would have been a need for aid from outside, but we can deal with what is happening here now."

The governments that eventually did send in teams were those of Iran and Azerbaijan, but Turkish officials insisted this was of no political significance, because those countries are just an hour's travel away from the earthquake zone. They simply got there first, even before most of the Turkish personnel.

During the past decade, Turkey has undergone not only political revolutions. It is true that the tremendous economic boom experienced by the country is less evident here than in wealthier areas, but the flow of rescue teams arriving via airlift and overland, as well as the emergency supplies dispatched to the area, definitely underlined that this is indeed a regional power. The food-distribution stations, the tent cities and the information centers opened for citizens were in sharp contrast to the chaos, for example, in the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Turkish response has not been perfect, but one can only hope that if and when the earthquake long anticipated in Israel finally hits, its authorities will be able to cope as successfully.

At the beginning of this week, the Turkish army went into northern Iraq again to strike at bases of the Kurdish PKK underground, which last week carried out a series of attacks on army bases and killed 24 soldiers. The juxtaposition of these events - and the fact that tens of thousands of Turkish Kurdish civilians have been left without shelter at the beginning of winter - prompted a sudden change in policy. Ankara has asked Israel and 30 other countries for portable structures to house the refugees. Rescue teams in Israel Defense Forces uniforms - no; portable housing made in Israel - yes. In light of the Israeli habit of patting itself on the shoulder every time it extends humanitarian aid, one can understand Erdogan.