Early Lessons from the Earthquakes in Turkey & Syria

By |2023-07-20T19:36:58+00:00February 15th, 2023|0 Comments

Daily our hearts break as we read updates of deaths and destruction in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6th.

Despite reports of unbelievable survival and rescues, more than 40,000 people have been confirmed dead so far, even as countries, organizations, and individuals across the globe continue to rally with support in cash, equipment, supplies, and rescue efforts.

According to Turkey’s disaster management agency, over 100,000 rescue personnel have been deployed already, with thousands more expected from generous countries. However, a sizeable number of the Turkish people believe that the government’s response should have been better.

Already there are early lessons that we can draw from the earthquake, with a focus on the preparedness, response and the role of technology in disaster management.

I am passionately interested in those lessons because my career in emergency management began shortly after the magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985. After this catastrophic disaster, the Southern California media constantly “preached” a message of comprehensive (personal, business, and community) preparedness to mitigate the impact of powerful earthquakes.

By the 1990s, a robust earthquake preparedness community had developed in California. In the decades that have passed, California has been hit with several earthquakes, although none have had the same impact as the Loma Prieta and Northridge quakes of 1989 and 1994, respectively. California learned important lessons from both events and has made major progress in seismic safety.

The message then is true today, “Plan to be on your own for a minimum of 72 hours.”  That’s how much time it would take the government to assess, organize a response strategy, and deploy medical, search and rescue teams.  This is what we are observing in Turkey and Syria today .  Search and rescue response is painstakingly slow.

As the world witnesses the dire situation unfolding in Turkey and Syria three pressing questions emerge.

  • Why were the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria so deadly?
  • What are the risks in regions with significant seismic activity, particularly the Western U.S.?
  • How should individuals, businesses and communities prepare?

Why were the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria so deadly?

The most obvious reason: lack of strict enforcement of construction building codes.   The government in Turkey has already taken steps of identifying specific contractors for investigation for allegedly constructing buildings that are not earthquake-proof, as local laws require.

These quakes were extremely shallow (a shallow earthquake is one that occurs at a depth of less than 70km). Shallow earthquakes cause more damage because they release their energy closer to the earth’s surface. Not to mention that rescue efforts have been limited in the politically unstable neighboring Syria.

In addition to the central issue of building collapse a CNN report summarizes other important reasons:

  • This is the strongest earthquake in a century and it was followed by many aftershocks. To be specific, there were two major magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 quakes, and the aftershocks have numbered over 125 so far. This has seriously hampered rescue efforts.
  • The early morning timing of the first earthquake meant that most people were at home and perhaps even in bed, allowing limited time to escape for safety.
  • Many people who were trapped under the rubble must have died from hypothermia due to the extreme below-freezing conditions that impacted survivability.

What are the risks facing regions with significant seismic activity — particularly California and the Western U.S.?

California has experienced a long ‘quiet’ period without significantly destructive earthquakes but experts believe that such possibilities remain and preparation is key.

A 2008 report published by the US Geological Survey indicated that a magnitude 7.8 earthquake could rival the worst natural disasters in US history in terms of the death toll. Not to mention that there is indeed a threat of a magnitude 8.2 quake occurring along the San Andreas fault, which will bring serious disaster to Los Angeles County and even the entire southern California. Northern California isn’t much safer, either.

The deadly flaws of California buildings

It would be a mistake for Californians to assume that Turkey’s fate cannot occur here, especially when some buildings in the Golden State share the same designs as those in the middle-eastern country.  Non-ductile concrete construction, which is common in both places, refers to buildings that were constructed before modern building codes were established and did not include ductility as a design requirement. These buildings typically have a rigid, brittle structure with a low tolerance for lateral movement, which makes them more susceptible to structural failure during earthquakes.

This is not to say that California has stagnated since 1906. As mentioned earlier, the media in the 1990s helped push the state towards adopting new building codes, retrofitting older buildings, implementing new seismic monitoring and early warning systems, and increasing public awareness of earthquake risks and preparedness.

Vulnerabilities that still must be addressed.

Despite the efforts made so far, certain vulnerabilities remain that must be addressed to mitigate the impact of a powerful earthquake. According to Rong-Gong Lin II of the LA Times, here are some of the most immediate concerns:

  • Explosions if the oil and gas pipelines along the San Andreas fault become ruptured.
  • Many brittle concrete towers and wood apartment buildings are vulnerable to collapse.
  • Besides physical injuries and deaths, the mental health toll from traumatic stress could be enormous. Deteriorating mental health is often ignored.
  • Interruptions to public utilities such as power could cause a shortage of essential supplies.
  • Possible economic instability, depending on the scale and impact of the disaster.
  • A cell service outage would cut communication lines and make response and recovery even more difficult.

Seven preparedness steps for individuals, businesses and communities in seismic zones

A Los Angeles Times report says, “An earthquake the size of Turkey’s would bring devastation, death to Southern California.”   The news outlet has developed extensive resources with suggested action steps. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Retrofit buildings: Retrofitting buildings is perhaps the most significant factor in reducing the deadly impact of an earthquake. Brittle concrete and brick buildings should be reinforced.
  2. Secure Objects: Unsecured furniture and objects can cause hazardous projections during an earthquake. This includes free-standing bookshelves, cabinets, and other heavy objects.
  3. Prepare for 72 hours on your own: Because of the possibility of a lack of access to public utilities and a shortage of supplies, people should have emergency kits at hand that include essential items including water, food, first aid supplies, etc.
  4. Create an emergency plan: Outlines what your family should do in the event of an earthquake. The plan should include information on where to go, who to contact, and what to do if someone is injured or trapped.
  5. Consider earthquake insurance: Disaster insurance can provide financial protection in the event of earthquake damage or loss, particularly for large businesses with valuable assets.
  6. Stay informed: It is important to stay informed about earthquakes and to be aware of any potential risks in the area. Stay up to date on earthquake alerts, warnings, and evacuation orders.
  7.  Build a strong community networkRenowned seismologist Lucy Jones explains why community networks must be at the center of preparedness.

Lucy Jones’s insights, “How do communities prosper again after a major catastrophe? Strong community networks can provide a sense of connection, support, and resilience that can help people to cope with the aftermath of the earthquake.  During the longer-term recovery phase, community networks can help to facilitate the distribution of resources, coordinate rebuilding efforts, and provide emotional and psychological support to those who have been affected. If you really want to be ready for the next big earthquake, forget the earthquake kit and go talk to your neighbors.”  Source:  LA Times

Why should we pay attention to these lessons?

The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria serves as a stark reminder of the devastating impact that natural disasters can have on communities. The current lessons learned serve as a wake-up call.  It’s time for emergency planners to revisit the concepts on how to mitigate hazards, prepare for and respond to future earthquakes.

Atlantic journalist Robin George Andrews says it best in her recent article; Earthquakes Are Unlike Any Other Environmental Disaster, “Hurricanes and volcanic eruptions can be predicted. But earthquakes always come as ambushes.”

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About the Author:

Kathy Rainey founded the Emergency Lifeline Corporation in 1985 to address the earthquake preparedness needs of businesses and communities. She is the publisher of the Disaster Resource Guide, Continuity eGUIDE and the Risk and Resilience Hub. Connect with Kathy via email at [email protected]

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