Emotions run high in Turkey amid questions over state response to deadly quake

CNN  — 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has admitted to his government’s “shortcomings” amid growing anger over the state’s response to the massive earthquake earlier this week, which is now known to have killed more than 21,000 people.

Days after the quake hit Turkey’s Gaziantep province near the Syrian border, rescuers are racing against the clock through freezing conditions in a frantic scramble to pull survivors from the debris. As questions emerge over the country’s preparedness, the latest estimates from the World Health Organization said up to 23 million people could be affected by the disaster.

Huge piles of rubble and wreckage litter streets in Gaziantep where residential buildings and properties once stood. As the desperate search for survivors continues, emergency responders have periodically called for silence from those in the immediate vicinity and for heavy machinery to briefly still while rescuers check for signs of life from trapped residents.

The official response has seen Erdogan declare a state of emergency for the next three months in 10 provinces. The country’s disaster management agency has deployed search and rescue teams to badly-hit areas and the health minister announced field hospitals had been set up.

Speaking as he visited several earthquake disaster zones Wednesday, Erdogan vowed to take “every necessary step” and unite the state and nation so that “we will not leave any citizen unattended.”

Earlier in the day, the president had acknowledged public concern over the government’s response, admitting the state initially “had some problems” at airports and on roads, but insisting the situation was now “under control.”

Erdogan also angrily pushed back against “some dishonest people” for “falsely slandering” his government’s quake response, saying the moment called for unity and that “in such a period, I cannot tolerate the viciously negative campaigns for the sake of simple political interests.”

He continued: “No doubt our job was not easy. The difficulty of weather conditions added to the magnitude and prevalence of the destruction caused by this earthquake, which was felt in an area of ​​500 kilometers in which approximately 13.5 million people live. Despite this, we mobilized all the resources of the state and the nation and directed them to the disaster area.”

“Of course there are shortcomings. The conditions are obvious. It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster. We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.”

Erdogan’s remarks come amid growing frustration from the public after reports emerged of entire towns in the country’s north flattened by the powerful tremblors. Amid the discontent, access to Twitter was briefly restricted in Turkey.

Network monitoring firm NetBlocks said Wednesday that traffic filtering had been applied at the internet service provider level while user complained Twitter was inaccessible. Access was restored by Thursday morning following an update on the situation from Twitter CEO Elon Musk.

“Twitter has been informed by the Turkish government that access will be reenabled shortly,” Musk wrote.

Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority oversees internet use in the country, and has not acknowledged the restriction or provided any reasoning for the curbs users experienced. However, Turkish police announced that multiple people have been detained or arrested following “provocative posts” about the quake on social platforms and websites “that want to abuse our citizens” have been shuttered.

Public response divided

Turkey is a country familiar with earthquakes given its location over several tectonic plates, but disasters like Monday are not common.

This week’s magnitude 7.8 quake was one of the most powerful to rock the region in the last century. An equally-strong 7.8 magnitude quake hit the east of the country in 1939, which resulted in more than 30,000 deaths, according to the United States Geological Survey.

In the wake of a separate massive quake in 1999 – which killed more than 17,000 people – the Turkish state introduced a so-called “earthquake tax” to provide support as a result of the economic losses from the disaster.

The tax – called the “special communications tax” by authorities – was one of the six taxes introduced after that catastrophe. It was initially introduced as a temporary measure, but subsequently became a permanent levy. Charged for the past 24 years, local tax expert Ozan Bingol estimates that the state has collected around 88 billion Turkish lira as a result.

The largest amount was collected last year, totaling 9.3 billion lira (approximately half a billion dollars). It is unclear how the tax has been spent – whether some of it has been used for reinforcing buildings or for earthquake preparations – which have added to public frustration.

The Turkish Ministry of Treasury and Finance lists the tax as “general budget revenue” but the government doesn’t specify exactly how the collected money has been used. Inclusion in the “general budget” means it’s expected to be used as a “service to people” for projects like building roads, bridges, hospitals and other general payments.

In Gaziantep, a stronghold for the ruling AKP party, there appeared to be a generational split among residents over the state’s handling of the disaster.

Kadir Suliman, a 23-year-old student, told CNN: “The state came here as soon as they could and is working 24/7 to help everyone. I criticize the people who criticize the government. They should just keep to themselves.”

Another student, Mustafa Yldrem, also 23, pushed back against criticism, questioning what more could have done in the face of such a widespread catastrophe.

“There have been 10 earthquakes in 10 different cities across the country. What more can the government do? The state is sending updates via text messages to all citizens about the safety of their areas. They inform us if buildings were inspected by the state and if they were cleared for safety. They opened up spaces of refuge, mosques, schools, etc and made sure they were heated. All for free.”

But Aziz Karabekmez, a 68-year-old retired electrician, denounced the government’s efforts and accused the state of “taking money from us for nothing.”

“The country is prone to earthquakes, they should be protecting our neighborhoods,” Karabekmez said. “The people in the front line sifting through the rubble are the Kazakhs and foreign volunteers, not the Turks. They don’t know how to do work. Why?”

Likewise, 70-year-old retired engineer Mehmet Ali Karabekmez, also shared his frustration, saying “they swallow our money.”

Karabekmez added: “If there was a benefit to the money they take from us, would we be in this position? The work from the Turkish officials has been very slow. Every time a building shakes a bit, you see them run away. They have no experience.”

Widespread destruction sparks questions

More than 5,700 buildings in Turkey have collapsed, according to the country’s disaster agency. With so much damage, both in Turkey and neighboring Syria, many are starting to ask about the role that building infrastructure might have played in the tragedy.

“The thing that strikes mostly are the type of collapses – what we call the pancake collapse – which is the type of collapse that we engineers don’t like to see,” said Mustafa Erdik, a professor of earthquake engineering at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “In such collapses, it’s difficult – as you can see – and a very tragic to save lives. It makes the operation of the search and rescue teams very difficult.”

Erdik told CNN the images of extensive ruins in the quake’s aftermath indicated “that there are highly variable qualities of designs and construction.” He said that the type of post-earthquake structural failures are usually partial collapses. “Total collapses are something you always try to avoid both in codes and the actual design,” he added.

USGS structural engineer Kishor Jaiswal told CNN Tuesday that Turkey has experienced significant earthquakes in the past, including a quake in 1999 which left thousands dead.

Jaiswal said many parts of Turkey have been designated as very high seismic hazard zones and, as such, building regulations in the region mean construction projects should withstand these types of events and in most cases avoid catastrophic collapses – if done properly.

But not all buildings have been built according to the modern Turkish seismic standard, Jaiswal said. Deficiencies in the design and construction, especially in older buildings, mean that many buildings could not handle the severity of the shocks.

“If you are not designing these structures for the seismic intensity that they may face in their design life, these structures may not perform well,” said Jaiswal.

Erdik also said he believed many of the buildings that have collapsed were likely “built pre-1999.” He added there also would have been instances where some buildings didn’t conform to code.

“The codes are very modern in Turkey, very similar to US codes. But again, the codes conformity is an issue that we’ve tried to tackle with legal and administrative procedures. We have the permits from municipalities and controls for design, controls for construction. But then again, there are things that are lacking.”

CNN’s Hande Atay Alam and Brian Fung also contributed to this report.