‘You have to find the small lights’: The challenges for quake-hit Turkey
For more than two decades, the World Bank has been helping Turkey with earthquake preparedness – providing funds and guidance to strengthen public buildings like schools and hospitals, improve emergency communications, and supply first-responder vehicles and equipment. Now Turkey and war-torn northern Syria are struggling with the aftermath of the deadliest temblor to hit this seismically sensitive region in the modern era. The initial Feb. 6 quake, with a magnitude of 7.8, as well as another major strike hours later and numerous aftershocks, has left more than 40,000 dead.
The Monitor recently spoke with Alanna Simpson, the World Bank’s lead disaster risk-management specialist for Europe and Central Asia, to ask about the lessons of past earthquakes and Turkey’s preparedness and response to this quake – which the bank is aiding with nearly $2 billion. In phone and email interviews, Dr. Simpson, who has worked on seismic risks in Turkey since 2017, describes this country as actually a leader in earthquake response. “This type of event would strain any country irrespective of its level of preparedness,” she says.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What stands out to you about Turkey’s risk preparation?
Turkey is one of the most seismically risky countries in the world by nature of where it sits on tectonic plates. And one of the things that always strikes me when I go to Turkey is, in most government offices there’s a map of the seismic hazard of Turkey on the walls. In many other countries that have high seismic risk, the authorities are maybe not so aware.
Turkey is one of the [world’s] leaders in earthquake response. They have a large response agency. They do a lot of work at the provincial and local levels on drills and preparedness. In this case, I think everyone needs to keep remembering that these are very large earthquakes.
Two powerful earthquakes occurred within hours of each other, and were followed by over 1,200 aftershocks impacting a geographic area larger than Austria. This type of event would strain any country irrespective of its level of preparedness.
What makes for an effective response following an earthquake?
Coordination is key. It’s coordination at the very local level, all the way up to the international level, and having sort of pre-agreed, prearranged mechanisms for that. Communication is challenging because communications systems are often affected by disasters. Pre-positioned supplies also help, and trained personnel.
Given the cold weather, people should have warm, safe places to go, and access to clean water and food. The continuity of health services is super critical for the people affected.
Authorities in Turkey are arresting people for shoddy construction. What role does accountability play?
If there are new buildings constructed under modern codes that collapsed, then these cases should be investigated. However, it is important to recognize the massive challenge of buildings constructed prior to the more modern 2000 building codes.
There is an urgent need globally to invest in the seismic strengthening or reconstruction of these vulnerable buildings. This can be undertaken at the same time as improving energy efficiency, resilience to other disasters, access for people with disabilities, and general modernization.
How can Turkey improve earthquake resilience?
The intentions are there. It’s just a giant problem. There are efforts underway to invest in stronger, more energy-efficient public buildings, for example. But of course, that takes time and it takes financial resources. I think it’s countries which have very frequent large disasters that become better at it. This is partly why Japan is held up as such a model [of disaster risk management].
Make sure all of your citizens are ready for earthquakes. They have their home kits. They know where to evacuate. They take out insurance. And then make sure you’ve got good early warning systems so people get alerts or get information if there is a disaster. Having a good evacuation route on your roads is good for a snowstorm, it’s good for an earthquake, and often it’s just good for increased transport times.
Is there anything we can learn from earthquakes in other political hot spots?
There is a lot to be learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that affected some parts of Indonesia, which were quite fragile at that time. And coming together in the reconstruction was an opportunity for peace building. But in other cases, if you have disasters in very fragile situations, it can just be eminently more complicated.
What is preparedness versus prevention?
There’s preparedness that’s preparing for a disaster – you’re getting your first responders ready, your first aid. And then there’s prevention – that’s building stronger roads, replacing vulnerable buildings with stronger buildings. In recent years, the World Bank has focused on building resilience, including safer schools for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Many of these schools are now hosting those displaced and made homeless by the two earthquakes.
I saw a picture of one of those schools. The school is safe. People are using it as shelter. I’m immensely proud. You have to find the small lights because this is a truly devastating event and I am so sad. And my thoughts and my prayers are for everybody in Turkey and Syria.