Turkey's disaster agency struggles in Van quake test

Turkey's disaster agency struggles in Van quake test

Turkeys disaster agency struggles in Van quake test

Minister of Health Recep Akdağ (Center L) and Minister of Energy Taner Yıldız (Center R) came face to face with protesters, who called the Governor of Van to resign. DHA photo

The consecutive 7.2- and 5.6-magnitude earthquakes have subjected Turkey to a major test in disaster management in the last month. With more than 640 people losing their lives and thousands migrating from the quake-hit southeastern city of Van, the earthquake has become the most damaging disaster Turkey has faced in the last 10 years. Yet, some civil defense experts and rescue workers say Turkey failed with flying colors.

“Civil defense is not just about rescuing people from the rubble. There needs to be a major disaster management plan that can be applied easily. However in our case, everything stays on paper,” Suat Özçağdaş, a psychologist who has been running support programs in disaster areas, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

He said the authorities could not even predict the results of the disaster. “If they could, they would accept foreign aid offers in the first place. The first few days were extremely important,” added Özçağdaş, who has worked with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Turkish Red Crescent before launching Sosyal İnovasyon Merkezi.

Turkey lacked a detailed disaster management plan, which should be ready for similar events in the future, he said.

AFAD worker’s insight

Turkey’s current authority for dealing with such disasters is called the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), an institution established in 2009 to replace the Civil Defense General Directorate.

Although AFAD’s central administrative office remains in Ankara, the institution has teams of 100-120 rescue workers in 11 metropolitan cities in Turkey, whose only job is to intervene in the case of disaster.

An AFAD rescue specialist in İzmir, who preferred to remain anonymous, said AFAD’s general directorate in Ankara had even failed in transporting its workers to Van.

“We had to drive to Van by our own means because the plane carrying rescuers to the quake-hit city only had a few places. It took us 30 hours to drive there and we were all tired. The first 24 hours are critical and we lost that time,” the rescuer said.

Unfortunately, AFAD directors in Ankara are not experts in disaster management, they are just bureaucrats, he added. “There are about 100 crisis managers in Ankara, but none of them came to Van. The disaster management center was left to the district governor who has no experience in dealing with such cases.”

Özçağdaş gave further insight. “The governor who runs the crisis has to meet every other bureaucrat who comes to Van, according to the protocol rules. Ten ministers have come to Van so far. How can the head in charge of the crisis afford that time?” Other rescuers and civil defense experts who also worked in Van complained about the lack of coordination between the management branches.

“Turkey took a big step after the 1999 earthquake and we have many specially qualified rescue workers. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of coordination,” said former civil defense worker Ömer Karaca. Karaca said he could not imagine what might happen if an earthquake hits Istanbul. Others say Turkey has failed in the task of managing the disaster.

“We failed for the 600,000 people in Van. What would we do in Istanbul with 18 million people?” an AFAD specialist said.