Turkey’s earthquake response is as political as the conditions that increased the devastation

Turkey’s earthquake response is as political as the conditions that increased the devastation

Jenna Krajeski writes:

When the first earthquake, 7.8 in magnitude, struck just outside Gaziantep on Monday morning, Gürkan Arpaci considered himself lucky. About eighty miles away, in Elbistan, the small Turkish town where Arpaci was born and lives, only three or four buildings had collapsed and there didn’t seem to be too many casualties. Almost everyone he knew appeared on the street in the freezing pre-dawn hour, wondering what to do next. Arpaci’s family has two cars, one belonging to him and one to his parents, and they piled in as many neighbors as possible, cranked up the heat, and drove to a nearby field, where they could make phone calls, share some food, and get some sleep—away from the falling debris. When his boss at the local power plant, where Arpaci works as a mechanical engineer, asked him to come in for his morning shift, he obliged, taking the company bus along with a handful of his colleagues, most of them silent in fear and exhaustion. At least the rumble of the bus hid the frequent aftershocks, so he didn’t have to pretend that they didn’t scare him.

At 1:30 p.m., Arpaci, who is thirty, was immersed in his work when the second quake—nearly as strong as the first—hit. This time, Elbistan was close to the epicenter. “It was like something huge was knocking on the walls and doors,” he told me. Workers raced outside to call their families. “My mother was safe, she hadn’t left the car,” Arpaci said. His sister, who was staying in a nearby village, was also fine. Again, he felt lucky. Around him, people were in anguish, unable to reach loved ones, or they had reached them after they were trapped under rubble, or worse. “People were screaming ‘Elbistan is toppled now,’ ” he said. “ ‘There is no more Elbistan.’ ” Arpaci ran out of the power plant, not waiting for the company bus to take him back to his family.

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria were, like most earthquakes, both utterly shocking and entirely predictable. The region lies on two major faults, and Turkey’s own history is riddled with earthquakes, dating back to the earliest recorded history of the country—before Christianity, before Islam, before radars and seismology and certainly before the polarizing ascent of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.). I lived in Istanbul between 2011 and 2015, and the threat, and memory, of earthquakes loomed heavily. Metal rods hammered between centuries-old stones in Istanbul’s historic core are evidence of early attempts at earthquake preparation. Images of the city after a series of earthquakes starting in 553, with the iconic dome of the Hagia Sophia collapsed like a deflated balloon, are commonly depicted on postcards. Brightly colored educational vans containing replicas of a child’s bedroom—the furniture and knickknacks secured according to government guidelines—routinely circle Turkish cities, to demonstrate how to prepare.

Even with all this history, however, this week’s earthquakes were likely the largest natural disaster the country has ever faced, hitting ten major cities in southern Turkey, as well as parts of northern Syria, which had already been extensively damaged by war and is mostly controlled by rebels. For nearly three days, aid and rescue from the Turkish government stalled, and local communities were largely left to fend for themselves. [Continue reading…]

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