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Unprepared for the worst
Macarena Aguilar

Nearly 18,000 people died, even more were injured, and over 600,000 left homeless following two strong earthquakes in north-west Turkey last year. This time nature did not attack the scarcely populated rural areas but the industrial heartland where 40 per cent of the population lives.

The ghastly scenes of chaos and frustration revealed once again that the lack of preparedness in the face of natural disasters is almost always recognized after a tragedy.

On 17 August, the first earthquake struck around 3:00 with a magnitude between 7.4 and 7.8 on the Richter scale. It was felt in Istanbul and even Ankara which is 500 kilometres away from the epicentre. 

"At home everyone was woken up by the tremor and, completely disconcerted, we ran out into the street. We were convinced that the epicentre was here in Istanbul. When electricity was restored 24 hours later we heard the news and knew what had really happened," remembers Ufuk Köse, a young businessman, who during the days following the disaster worked as a volunteer with rescue teams arriving in the country. 

Immediately after the disaster, the authorities declared a state of emergency. People were desperately trying to move stones in the hope of saving a relative, while others stared fixedly at the mountains of rubble which used to be their homes. 

Having lived a couple of months with the constant threat of another major quake, it happened again: it hit on 12 November at 17:00 with a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale, its epicentre in the region of Bolu. "We were so afraid of the aftershocks that since August we have been sleeping in a tent although our house was still standing," says Havva Orhan, a young woman who now lives in a camp city set up in Bolu by the Turkish Red Crescent with support from the Spanish Red Cross. "When the second earthquake struck, our house collapsed."

On the scene

The response of the Turkish Red Crescent was almost immediate: 40,000 tents and tens of thousands of blankets and sleeping bags were distributed; 35 mobile kitchens were opened as well as two field clinics; planes were chartered to send food to the most affected areas. In less than a week it organized camp cities with water supplies, sanitation and electricity for around 20,000 people. 

Medical teams from the German, Norwegian and Spanish Red Cross set up emergency hospital units. The Austrian Red Cross installed a water purification unit. Even today assistance continues to arrive from almost 50 sister societies. 

The true magnitude of the disaster emerged in the midst of this humanitarian hustle and bustle. With each death or wounded accounted for, hopelessness and frustration grew, not only among the victims, but also among the authorities, institutions and the general public. "We were not prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude in an urban area," stated Fatih Evren, director general of the Turkish Red Crescent. 

The efforts to bring assistance expanded daily as did the criticism. The Turkish press was outspoken in its critique of the government and institutions such as the Turkish Red Crescent which has been active in disaster response at home and abroad for many decades. The response seemed insufficient, slow and the quality of aid did not correspond to the expectations of the population. 

"In times of war people know who the aggressor is and who is responsible for the death of their relatives or the destruction of their homes but this is not the case after a natural disaster," explains Robert Sebaag, psychiatrist and director of the international affairs department of the French Red Cross. "At the outset, victims tend to blame supernatural forces but a little later they start to look for a culprit. It is often the case that, during relief operations undertaken by National Societies, victims point a finger at those in the front line who are giving assistance." 

The lack of clarity and definition of the role and responsibilities of each participant within the national emergency plan no doubt contributed to exacerbate the confusion and discontent. Moreover the scarce investment made to prepare the population for a disaster of this magnitude was a determining factor in the reaction of public opinion. 

As Doug Allan, director of emergency operations of the American Red Cross, says: "When we refer to disaster preparedness we do not only mean relief supplies in warehouses or more or less sophisticated systems of intervention established by the different actors to respond to emergencies. We refer mainly to the degree of awareness of the population as a whole with regard to the risks to which it is exposed, the measures to be taken in case of an emergency which consist in taking responsibility during the initial response period and, most importantly, knowing what is expected of the government and humanitarian institutions."

Lessons learnt

Today despite low temperatures and snow, people in the affected areas live safely in some 75,000 tents, provided by the Red Cross Red Crescent, or in prefabricated houses built by the government. 
Recently Koray Aydin, minister of public works and housing stated in an interview to a Turkish newspaper: "The earthquakes stunned the country as a whole... they made us enter into a new phase in which we call into question our deficiencies and this is the most important benefit to us all.

" On its side, the Turkish Red Crescent embarked on one of the most important humanitarian operations in its history. It has started a process of internal reorganization to strengthen its capacity to respond to emergency situations from headquarters to the branch level. These initiatives and more are to be incorporated into an integrated disaster preparedness programme, to be implemented as part of the Red Cross Red Crescent core activity for 2000 and beyond. 

"It is clear that we have improved our preparation and response capacities to disasters. The programme that we are going to implement in the course of the year 2000 is the first stage of this fundamental process," concludes Fatih Evren, director general of the Turkish Red Crescent.

Macarena Aguilar 
Macarena Aguilar was a Federation information delegate based in Istanbul.

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