Emotions run high in Turkey amid questions over state response to deadly earthquake
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted ‘shortcomings’ when it emerged his government had restricted access to Twitter amid growing anger over the state’s response to this week’s massive earthquake , which is said to have killed more than 15,000 people.
Two days after the quake hit the Turkish province of Gaziantep near the Syrian border, rescuers are racing against time in freezing conditions in a frantic race to extract survivors from the rubble. As questions emerge over the country’s preparedness, the latest estimates from the World Health Organization indicate that up to 23 million people could be affected by the disaster.
Huge piles of rubble and wreckage litter the streets of Gaziantep where residential buildings and properties once stood. As the desperate search for survivors continues, emergency responders have periodically called for silence from those in the immediate vicinity and for heavy machinery to come to a halt briefly while rescuers check for signs of life. trapped residents.
The official response saw Erdogan declare a state of emergency for the next three months in 10 provinces. The country’s disaster management agency has deployed search and rescue teams to hard-hit areas and the health minister has announced that field hospitals have been set up.
Speaking as he visited several earthquake-stricken areas on Wednesday, Erdogan pledged to take “all necessary measures” and unite the state and the nation so that “we leave no citizen unattended. “.
Earlier in the day, the president had acknowledged public concern over the government’s response, admitting that the state had initially “had some problems” at airports and on the roads, but insisting that the situation was now “under control”.
Erdogan also angrily pushed back against “some dishonest people” for “falsely slandering” his government’s response to the earthquake, saying the moment called for unity and that “in such a time, I cannot tolerate viciously negative campaigns in the name of mere political interests. ”
He continued, “Without a doubt, our job has not been easy. Difficult weather conditions added to the scale and prevalence of destruction caused by this earthquake, which was felt in an area of 500 kilometers in which about 13.5 million people live. Despite this, we mobilized all the resources of the state and the nation and directed them to the disaster area.
“Of course, there are shortcomings. The conditions are obvious. It is not possible to be prepared for such a catastrophe. We will not leave any of our citizens without care.
Erdogan’s remarks come amid growing public frustration after reports surfaced of entire towns in the country’s north being flattened by the powerful tremors. Amid the discontent, access to Twitter has been restricted in Turkey.
Network monitoring firm NetBlocks said on Wednesday that traffic filtering had been applied at the internet service provider level, which blocked Twitter users from accessing the social media site. The report coincided with user claims that Twitter was inaccessible in the country.
“There are many reports of Twitter throttling in Turkey,” tweeted Istanbul-born Columbia University professor Zeynep Tufekci, a long-time expert on the widespread use of social media. Tufekci added that some Twitter users had expressed “growing dissatisfaction” with Turkey’s response effort.
CNN has reached out to Twitter for comment.
Turkey’s Information and Communications Technology Authority oversees internet usage in the country and did not acknowledge the reported restriction or provide justification for the restrictions some users saw. However, Turkish police announced that several people have been detained or arrested following “provocative messages” about the earthquake on social platforms and websites “that want to abuse our citizens” have been shut down.
Turkey is a country familiar with earthquakes given its location on multiple tectonic plates, but disasters like Monday’s are not common.
This week’s magnitude 7.8 quake was one of the strongest to hit the region in the past century. An equally powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the east of the country in 1939, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Following a separate massive earthquake in 1999 – which killed more than 17,000 people – the Turkish state introduced a so-called ‘earthquake tax’ to provide support following the losses economic resulting from the disaster.
The tax – called the “special communications tax” by the authorities – was one of six taxes introduced after the disaster. It was initially introduced as a temporary measure, but later became a permanent levy. Accused for 24 years, local tax expert Ozan Bingol estimates that the state has thus collected around 88 billion Turkish liras.
The largest amount was collected last year, totaling 9.3 billion lire (about half a billion dollars). It’s unclear how the tax was spent – whether some was used to reinforce buildings or for earthquake preparations – which added to public frustration.
Turkey’s Treasury and Finance Ministry lists the tax as “general budget revenue”, but the government does not specify exactly how the money collected was used. Inclusion in the “general budget” means that it is supposed to be used as a “service to people” for projects such as the construction of roads, bridges, hospitals and other general payments.
In Gaziantep, a stronghold of the ruling AKP party, there appears to be a generational divide among residents over the state’s handling of the disaster.
Kadir Suliman, a 23-year-old student, told CNN: “The state came here as soon as it could and is working 24/7 to help everyone. I criticize people who criticize the government. They should just keep to themselves.
Another student, Mustafa Yldrem, also 23, brushed off the criticism, wondering what more he could have done in the face of such widespread disaster.
“There were 10 earthquakes in 10 different cities across the country. What more can the government do? The state sends text updates to all citizens about the safety of their areas. They inform us if the buildings have been inspected by the state and if they have been cleared for security reasons. They have opened places of refuge, mosques, schools, etc. and made sure they were warm. All for free.
In photos: Deadly earthquake strikes Turkey and Syria
But Aziz Karabekmez, a 68-year-old retired electrician, denounced the government’s efforts and accused the state of “taking money from us for nothing”.
“The country is prone to earthquakes, they should protect our neighborhoods,” Karabekmez said. “The people on the front line digging through the rubble are the Kazakhs and the foreign volunteers, not the Turks. They don’t know how to work. For what?”
Similarly, Mehmet Ali Karabekmez, a 70-year-old retired engineer, also shared his frustration saying “they are swallowing our money”.
Karabekmez added: “If there was an advantage to the money they take from us, would we be in this position? The work of Turkish officials has been very slow. Every time a building shakes a bit, you see them running away. They have no experience. »
More than 5,700 buildings in Turkey have collapsed, according to the country’s disaster management agency. With so much damage, both in Turkey and neighboring Syria, many are beginning to wonder what role infrastructure building might have played in the tragedy.
“What is most striking is the type of collapse – what we call the pancake collapse – which is the type of collapse that we engineers don’t like to see,” Mustafa said. Erdik, professor of earthquake engineering at Istanbul Bogazici University. . “In such collapses, it is difficult – as you can see – and very tragic to save lives. This makes the operation of search and rescue teams very difficult.
Erdik told CNN that images of extensive ruins in the aftermath of the earthquake indicated “there are widely varying qualities of design and construction.” He said the type of post-earthquake structural failures are usually partial collapses. “Total meltdowns are something you always try to avoid both in code and in actual design,” he added.
USGS structural engineer Kishor Jaiswal told CNN on Tuesday that Turkey has experienced significant earthquakes in the past, including a 1999 quake that killed thousands.
Jaiswal said that many parts of Turkey have been designated as very high seismic risk areas and as such building regulations in the region mean that construction projects must withstand these types of events and , in most cases, avoid catastrophic collapses – if done correctly.
But not all buildings were built to the modern Turkish seismic standard, Jaiswal said. Shortcomings in design and construction, particularly in older buildings, meant that many buildings could not withstand the severity of the shocks.
“If you don’t design these structures for the seismic intensity that they may face over their lifetime, these structures may not perform well,” Jaiswal said.
Erdik also said he believed many of the buildings that collapsed were likely “built before 1999”. He said there have also been instances where some buildings were not up to code.
“The codes are very modern in Turkey, very similar to American codes. But again, code compliance is an issue that we have tried to resolve with legal and administrative procedures. We have municipal permits and controls for design, controls for construction. But again, there are things missing.