Hours after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Turkey on 6 February, emergency experts left Izmir to help hard-stricken areas 1,100 kilometres away in the east. The team’s response was prompt – after all, they had experienced quakes from up close.
As dawn turned to dusk, the 1,500-strong group of doctors, paramedics, psychologists, educators and engineers reached the sites and knuckled down, amid shocked survivors and mountains of rubble.
By then, the scale of the devastation was clear: thousands of buildings had collapsed, burying 44,000 people in Turkey’s east under an avalanche of metal and concrete. The earthquake that originated near Gazientep, also struck across the border, killing 6,000 in Northern Syria.
“People from Izmir are very sensitive to earthquake disasters. They know how painful the problem is, so they’re very eager to help” says Ercan Turkoglu, the Chairman of Izmir’s sustainable energy company Izenergji. In 2020, a powerful quake between Greece and Turkey killed 17 in Izmir.
Turkoglu was in Brussels last week, wearing two hats: aside from his regular job, these days he’s also helping Izmir’s mayor to rally European support to prop up the city in its giant earthquake relief task.
Turkoglu’s core mission: raise awareness about short and long-term needs, including the integration of quake survivors as they start relocating to Izmir.
As part of its disaster relief actions, Izmir is sending buses to quake-hit areas and bringing people back. Six thousand have already accepted the offer and moved to Izmir, a number that local officials expect to reach up to 600,000.
“People want to go where they feel safe and where they can expect to be cared for,” says Turkoglu.
I was happy to welcome Ercan Türkoğlu and Işıl Ergeç, representatives of the City of Izmir, in the @Eurocities headquarters to discuss the current situation after the earthquakes and the support our network may offer. pic.twitter.com/6N6M209USH
— André Sobczak (@andresobczak) February 28, 2023
Izmir is providing earthquake survivors with accommodation in local hotels and offering them social services, but it won’t be long before it finds itself under pressure. “Shortly, the city will reach full capacity, and financial support will be needed,” Turkoglu remarks. Additional resources will ensure that services like housing, employment, medical care and education are accessible to all inhabitants, old and new. “The demand for local services will expand considerably, so we need to be prepared for that,” he adds.
During his Brussels visit, Turkoglu met – among others – with Eurocities Secretary General, André Sobczak as well as European Commission and Parliament officials. In an online meeting that same week, Turkish mayors of Eurocities and the network’s leadership agreed to work together on both short emergency aid and long-term goals, providing both immediate relief and post-quake reconstruction.
Tapping into the experience of its ‘Sustainable rebuilding of Ukrainian cities‘ project, Eurocities is planning to create a similar model for Turkish municipalities, offering city-to-city support for devastated areas.
More than an earthquake
Earthquake-proofing new constructions will be crucial to avoid similar tragedies in the future. Turkey sits on shaky ground, in one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world. Retrofitting old homes and building earthquake-resistant ones will be paramount to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
The rules are already there. Since a devastating earthquake in 1999, quake-proofing is mandated by Turkey’s national laws, but hardly enforced in a country where the building sector is a major economic driver.
No wonder, then, that within minutes, the 6 February quake turned poorly built constructions into mountains of debris, with residents trapped underneath.
The matter is complex, admits Turkoglu. Owners often avoid assessing the safety of their buildings for fear that, if not compliant, authorities will destroy their homes, he explains.
To help residents face quake-proofing costs, Izmir created a programme offering financial aid and technical expertise. But, limited by budgetary constraints, the municipality can only offer this service to a small number of residents.
Izmir learned some important lessons from its own earthquake in 2020, and the city is now putting that experience to good use, says Turkoglu,
“We understood the importance of preparedness, of how the first 48 hours are crucial to save survivors. That’s why we were able to react so quickly the morning of 6 February.”
Like Izmir, dozens of Turkish municipalities moved operations to the quake-stricken areas to provide disaster relief.
Rescue workers are still there and will likely remain in those locations until May, predicts Turkoglu. He’s eager to draw European partners’ attention to the scale of Turkey’s predicament. “By saying ‘earthquake’, you cannot define the problem in Turkey right now. A big region, 11 cities and 13 million people have been directly affected. We’re trying to raise awareness about the real disaster, to make people understand that this is more than an earthquake.”
The metropolitan municipality of Izmir has set up an aid campaign for victims of the earthquake to send supplies to ten cities in Turkey, which can be accessed here: https://umuthareketi.izmir.bel.tr/
Top photo: Caglar Oskay