Photo: AP

The international effort to provide food and shelter to victims of the killer earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria three days ago intensified Thursday as emergency personnel rushed tents and equipment into the battered region.

The confirmed death toll reached nearly 21,000 Thursday, surpassing the total from Japan’s Fukushima disaster in March 2011. That magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami, killing more than 18,400 people.

In some locations where hope of finding survivors had vanished, crews began demolishing buildings. Vice President Fuat Oktay said rescue work was mostly complete in the cities of Diyarbakir, Adana and Osmaniye.

The U.N. said its first cross-border aid convoy arrived in northwest Syria on Thursday. Six trucks of “shelter items and non-food item kits, including blankets and hygiene kits,” reached Bab al-Hawa, the only border crossing authorized by the U.N. Security Council for aid delivery.

“We have a glimmer of hope that we can reach people,” said Muhannad Hadi, the U.N.'s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

The International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation said it was housing 9,000 survivors in in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Foreign Ministry had cleared 5,709 international personnel to work alongside more than 20,000 Turkish recovery personnel in what he called “the disaster of the century.”

Turkish authorities said the death toll has risen to more than 17,600 in the country, with more than 70,000 injured. In Syria, including government-held and rebel-held areas, more than 3,300 have been reported dead, and more than 5,000 injured.

Amid all the devastation and numerous buildings reduced to twisted metal and pieces of concrete, rescue crews have to prioritize where to focus their efforts, a practical decision with emotional ramifications.

In the southern Turkey city of Adiyaman, Associated Press journalists saw a person pleading for rescuers to search through the rubble of a building where relatives were trapped. They declined, saying no one was alive there and they had to choose areas with possible survivors.

A man who gave his name only as Ahmet told the news agency: “How can I go home and sleep? My brother is there. He may still be alive.”

There were occasional success stories, such as the 17-year-old girl who emerged alive in Adiyaman and the 20-year-old who was found in Kahramanmaras, prompting rescuers to shout, “God is great.”

But for many, the realization they may no longer see some loved ones alive had already hit. In Nurdagi, 67-year-old Mehmet Nasir Dusan had no hope of reuniting with five relatives buried under the debris of a nine-story building, but he was determined to find their remains.

“We’re not leaving this site until we can recover their bodies, even if it takes 10 days,” he said. “My family is destroyed now.”

Slow recovery in Syria

In Syria, local rescue crews said aid delays may have cost lives. The U.N. has drawn criticism for not taking exceptional measures to deliver aid in the warn-torn country. Karam Shaar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the world organization should have broken protocol and used multiple crossing routes into Syria or provided airdrops. Lack of heavy machinery and other equipment often forced rescuers to clear rubble with their bare hands. Still, unimaginable rescues took place.

“After 50 hours of work, we pulled out a man and little girl alive,” said Abada Zikri, a first responder with the White Helmets in Harem, a town of about 20,000 people in Syria’s Idlib province. The White Helmets are a volunteer organization that lends aid in opposition-held parts of Syria.

Sanitary conditions worsen amid slow recovery

Resat Gozlu, a resident of Turkey's Adiyaman province, told the BBC that rescue teams did not arrive in her city until almost three days after Monday's quake. Gozlu, now living on the floor of a packed sports complex with his family, says many people are still trapped under the rubble. Others have died of hypothermia, he said. Local companies, aid organizations and civilians have helped by providing food and water, but other necessities such as toilets remain unavailable, he said.

"People are going in the street or abandoned buildings," he said. “If this continues, there could be serious health issues and illness."

Sadness as bodies emerge from rubble

In the Turkish city of Nurdagi, family members of people trapped inside a six-floor building that had collapsed watched as heavy machines ripped into the debris pile. Mehmet Yilmaz estimated that about 80 people were still beneath the rubble but that it was unlikely any would be recovered alive.

“There’s no hope,” Yilmaz, who had six relatives, including a 3-month-old baby, trapped inside, told The Associated Press. “We can’t give up our hope in God, but they entered the building with listening devices and dogs and there was nothing.”

Authorities called off search and rescue operations Thursday in the cities of Kilis and Sanliurfa, where destruction was not as severe as in other regions.

Turkey earthquakes horrific, but far from deadliest on record

Several factors have combined to make the earthquakes and aftershocks in Turkey especially catastrophic.

For one, they've impacted a stretch of about 300 miles where 13.5 million Turks live, along with an unknown number of Syrians. Shallow quakes like the ones that hit Monday tend to cause more damage, and the relative weakness of buildings in the region has also contributed to the death toll rising past 20,000.

That still leaves this natural disaster far short of other earthquakes when it comes to loss of life.

Estimates vary depending on the source, but according to, the Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 in China killed 242,000 -- the government figure -- but may have claimed as many as 655,000 lives were lost.

The website says at least 225,000 people in a dozen countries died in the 2004 earthquake that hit off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, triggering a massive tsunami. A 1970 earthquake off the coast of Peru killed about 70,000 people, mostly in massive landslides.

Britannica says the 2010 Haiti earthquake might be the deadliest one on record with a government figure of more than 300,000, but other estimates were a lot lower. Regardless, the temblor left about 1.5 million people homeless.

Turkish government fends off criticism

Many of the tens of thousands who lost their homes have found shelter in tents, stadiums and other temporary accommodation. But despite the push to provide shelter from the winter weather, others have spent the nights outdoors.

“Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” said Ahmet Tokgoz, who was left homeless in the Turkish city of Antakya. “People are warming up around campfires, but campfires can only warm you up so much. … If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”

Turkish authorities rejected criticism that the government was not doing enough and said the scope of the disaster was beyond what any government could prepare for.


Source: USA Today

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