State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Why the Earthquake in Turkey Still Matters

Eight months after the earthquakes in Turkey, people still live in tents. Photo: Jeff Schlegelmilch

The following is based on observations during site visits conducted to assess earthquake recovery progress and ongoing needs in early October 2023.

Driving down the mountain from Gaziantep on the road to the Hatay region, a large valley opens up with clear, checkered patterns of farms—onions ready for harvest, olive groves and other crops. Across the valley is the mountain range we will follow the rest of the way to our destination, central Hatay. The mountains sit above the East Anatolian Fault, where tectonic plates miles below the earth’s surface caused the 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February of this year, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths and displacing more than three million people. Both countries have been impacted extraordinarily by the disaster, but our trip is focused on understanding needs on the Turkish side of this tragedy.

As we approach our destination, large abandoned buildings with collapsed walls and massive cracks emerge with greater frequency. It attests to the scale of the destruction and the lack of progress eight months after the earthquakes.

Central Hatay is dense with a seemingly endless landscape of damaged and demolished buildings, interspersed with tents and cities of temporary housing known as “containers,” which are approximately the size of a small shipping container but are fabricated for temporary housing. These containers are arranged in camps, with little space between them. Each affords little privacy in crowded and unsanitary conditions. The air is thick with dust from demolition and fumes from the heavy equipment at work. The air quality will undoubtedly be the subject of research years from now, with increased asthma and cancer rates among locals. Eight months after the earthquakes, recovery is still a distant fantasy.

A container camp in Hatay. Photo: Zain Alabweh

Throughout the day, survivors tell us their stories. At a school, a counselor speaks of being trapped in a collapsed building for three hours before being rescued. Yet despite his trauma and self-described hopelessness, he is also eager to volunteer for any potential good that can be brought to the area. While speaking with educators and administrators, we hear more heartbreaking stories about staff and children in the school who lost parents, friends and loved ones in the earthquakes, but somehow need to find a way to move on amidst the damage and slow pace of recovery.

As we are talking, the ground begins to shake. It’s another earthquake. This one is relatively small, a 4.3 magnitude earthquake in a neighboring town. It doesn’t last more than a few seconds. It’s enough to rattle us, but for those who live in the region, it is a trigger. Memories of the collapsing buildings and people screaming for help beneath the rubble come flooding back. One teacher has a different reaction, though. She instinctively leaps up to check on the children under her care. Knowing what this means to their mental well-being, she rushes to make sure they are OK before the ground even stops shaking.

Community leaders describe how they meet nonstop throughout the day, hearing about unmet needs, with little to offer to help. Eight months out, they have a humble goal: to get everyone out of tents and into containers. Long-term recovery planning is an overwhelming idea, and psychological recovery is unthinkable when prerequisites like food, water, shelter, reliable power and even places to socialize remain buried in the rubble.

Half-demolished buildings in central Hatay. Photo: Jeff Schlegelmilch

Why does this matter? In a world of countless disasters, why spend time on the ones way over there?

Many of our lives could not be more different than those in southeastern Turkey; an area with large populations of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, also struggling amidst political strife and persistent economic hardship. And yet there are patterns that transgress all of our lives.

To put it succinctly, we are all different, and yet we are all Turkey. Just as we are all Maui, Paradise, Morocco, Puerto Rico…and the list goes on.

One day, we will sit down to dinner, like the residents of Hatay did in early February. We will eat with family, friends, associates or alone. We may ponder our next move or what we need to do to be the best version of ourselves. Or we will commiserate on the anxieties of unfinished efforts or talk of concern for those we care about. Maybe we will have a few drinks and try to push all this aside and simply live in the moment. All the while, we will rely on the world around us to function as it always has. We will expect to read about tragedy but hope that it avoids us. And we will quietly assume that the systems we have built to prevent, respond to and recover from disasters are ready for us.

The next day, the trajectory of our lives will be forever altered. The very systems we took for granted will struggle to function, and our aspirations for a better future will give way to hopes of a container instead of a tent to live in for the coming years.

Turkey matters because national and global response systems are failing under the tremendous strain of competition from other disasters around the world. Turkey matters because it touches on systems for disaster response, complex humanitarian emergencies, internally displaced persons and refugees. And yet none of these response models are sufficient. Turkey matters because more than three million people have been reduced to a punctuation mark in disaster discussions as we think about and prepare for catastrophes more broadly. Turkey matters, just as all of the other disasters we experience matter, because we can’t keep up and generations are being lost along the way.

A desolate, rubble-strewn landscape in Hatay. Photo: Jeff Schlegelmilch

There are glimmers of hope. Amidst the brokenness and rubble, a school built out of containers is working with children to prepare for exams, hosting movie nights and other events for people to socialize. Simple interactions, like children racing each other to wherever they are going, stand out in an environment where nothing is normal. This is the product of compassion. People are giving, caring and working to give even the smallest opportunity for normalcy and recovery. But donations are drying up, volunteers are going back to work and supplies are running out. A dedicated team of responders and agencies are trying to help while the world moves on.

Turkey matters, because one day we will rely on the compassion of others who are also busy with their own lives. And if this compassion runs out, we will find ourselves forgotten and seemingly alone in endless recovery.

As disaster professionals and researchers, we don’t know how to fix this. There are no quick answers. There are no pre-canned solutions. We have ideas, approaches and theories to meet the tasks ahead of us, and we are all working hard to figure this out with new research, innovative models of practice and policy recommendations. A more resilient future is possible, but it can be hard to see through the dust and fumes of the disaster responses and recoveries happening right now.

To meet immediate needs, our best resource is compassion. From that comes everything else. We rely on compassion in the form of donations, attention and volunteers. Compassion fuels the actions that lead to impact and fills in the gaps where other systems fall short. All over the world, it is needed now more than ever. And there is a fair chance that one day, for those of us fortunate enough to have avoided the tragedy of disasters of this magnitude, we will need it, too.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia Climate School. He is also the author of Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to 21st Century Megadisasters, and is the co-author of Catastrophic Incentives: Why our Approach to Disasters to Disasters Keep Falling Short. Both were published by Columbia University Press.

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Gabriel Drekou
Gabriel Drekou
4 months ago

Thanks for the article, I’m researching to volunteer there in April. If you have any tips,I would appreciate it, cheers