Lessons Learned in the Wake of Devastating Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria
On February 6, 2023, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, followed by a magnitude 7.5 aftershock on the Richter magnitude scale (Richter scale), in the southern region of the Republic of Turkey (Turkey). The Richter Scale uses a numerical system from 1 to 10 measuring the strength of earthquakes based on their magnitude, or the amount of seismic energy released at the source (epicenter) of the earthquake.
The region, which nears the northern border of Syria, experienced an additional magnitude 6.3 earthquake on February 20. Collectively, these earthquakes and aftershocks have had a devastating impact on the communities in Turkey and Syria with media reporting over 47,000 casualties as of February 23. Amid overwhelming loss of life, over 1.5 million individuals have lost their homes.
Turkey and Syria, with significant international support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations (UN) aid agencies, are providing humanitarian support to those impacted. As of February 14, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) told media that 195,962 residents had evacuated the area. According to NGO Concern and media reports, individuals and families who are staying in the affected area are seeking shelter in community centers, sporting venues, tents, and cars due to complete loss of their home or fear of remaining in an unstable structure. Survivors seeking shelter are lacking basic commodities including but not limited to hygiene products, infant formula, blankets, and winter clothing.
In addition to supporting sheltering operations, Turkey and Syria are responding to critical infrastructure and key resources that sustained damage during the earthquake. Restoration is underway for utilities such as gas and electricity. However, access to gas and power remains off in certain areas while Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) and Disaster Assistance and Rescue Teams (DARTs) conduct search, rescue, and recovery operations. Healthcare facilities also sustained damage during the earthquakes, decreasing regional healthcare capacity.
In response to the earthquakes, the UN has issued a Flash Appeal so that the affected region and the international community can continue to support humanitarian and recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria.
What can communities learn from the earthquake events in Turkey and Syria?
- Enforcing building codes is critical to mitigating the impacts of earthquakes. According to media reports, building codes in Turkey are poorly enforced for retrofitting and new construction projects by issuing fines instead of requiring compliance. As a result, buildings that potentially could have withstood the gravity of the February 6 and 20 earthquakes were either destroyed or irreparably damaged. It is imperative that structures follow stringent building codes which will provide the best opportunity for buildings including government, utility, healthcare, and residential structures to absorb and withstand the shock of earthquakes which will also mitigate injuries and fatalities.
- Earthquake occurrences are more likely in the weeks and months following an initial earthquake. USGS underscores that “about 1 in 20 earthquakes are followed by a similar-sized or larger quake within the first week. While the chance goes down with time, large aftershocks can still occur months after the mainshock.” Communities should remain in a state of readiness during the response following the first earthquake to maintain the safety of first responders and survivors.
- Simultaneous incidents such as extreme weather, public health emergencies, and supply chain disruptions are likely to occur. The February 6 and 20 earthquakes occurred during the height of the winter season resulting in now-homeless individuals and families being exposed to freezing temperatures. The earthquakes also occurred alongside the ongoing cholera outbreak in Syria which has affected thousands of Syrian residents. Officials and emergency management departments should consider building plans around the strategies and resources needed to respond to additional incidents amid the ongoing earthquake response.
- Emergency management departments should have established structures to integrate the influx of volunteers to support response. Support from around the world – the UN, international USAR and DMAT teams, NGOs – quickly mobilized and deployed individuals and resources to assist with building assessments, life-safety, humanitarian shelter and feeding, and fatality management operations. In the event of a similar incident, it is prudent to have pre-set structures in place to effectively receive mutual and volunteer aid, as well as donations, to maintain full situational awareness and efficient utilization of deployed personnel and resources.
Integrating observations from the earthquake events into your local preparedness plans
The impact of an earthquake has no boundaries. Everything can be vulnerable, from continuity of essential services to healthcare, to having a roof over one’s head. As a result, the threat of an earthquake presents the perfect opportunity to learn from past earthquake events and update preparedness plans to address urban search rescue/ first responder activities, continuity of government, continuity of operations, disaster sheltering, long-term sheltering, volunteer and donations management, and supply chain management.
Additionally, this is an opportunity for elected officials to consider legislation on:
- Building code updates, compliance, and enforcement; as well as
- Allocating additional resources to support geological surveys to inform innovative hazard mitigation actions that could protect life and property in the event of a significant earthquake.
In addition to updating preparedness plans, educate and encourage members of the community to create a plan for themselves and their families so that they know what to do in the event of an earthquake and are aware of available resources further bolstering your community’s overall resilience. For ideas on how to best prepare yourself and your family, review the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Ready Campaign’s earthquake readiness checklist.
Kathryn Lhota is a Senior Managing Associate at Hagerty Consulting with experience working for public and private sector clients across the United States focusing on emergency preparedness and response, crisis communications, and stakeholder engagement. She holds a Master of Science in Healthcare Emergency Management from Boston University and Bachelor of Arts in Government from Georgetown University.