Millions remember Turkish earthquakes as recovery continues

News and Press Release
Originally published
August 15, 2003 -- In less than one minute on the hot summer night of August 17, 1999, the lives of the Turkish people changed forever. A massive 7.4 earthquake rocked the city of Gölc=FCk and the surrounding areas at 3:02 a.m., as millions of unsuspecting residents lay sleeping.
Even though Turkey is one of the most disaster-prone countries in Europe, its densely populated northwest region had been relatively unscathed by earthquakes in recent times. But forty-five seconds changed that. More than 17,000 people died and 44,000 were injured in the colossal quake that caused over $3 billion in damages.

"The people of Turkey are still strongly affected by it," said Ian O'Donnell, former head of the American Red Cross delegation in Turkey. "Not only the friends and family of those who died, but also hundreds of thousands of people who were injured or had to be relocated because their homes were destroyed."

Nearly 80 percent of Gölc=FCk's buildings were damaged and many reduced to rubble, not only by the powerful shaking but also when a six foot drop in the seabed triggered a monstrous tidal wave that engulfed part of the town. Across the affected region, more than 320,000 homes and businesses were lost, leaving over 300,000 people homeless.

The Lauch of a Massive Relief Effort

Overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, the government declared an emergency and asked for international assistance. The Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS), among the first to act by distributing tents and food and providing first aid, was joined by the American Red Cross and other sister Red Cross and Red Crescent societies which sent search and rescue teams, food, blankets, tents and medical aid.

"After the earthquake, the most needed items were tents, health materials and water sanitation equipment, which could not be supplied from within Turkey" said Omer Tasli, TRCS relief director. "The American Red Cross, other participating Red Cross national societies and the Federation were critical in supplying these materials."

However, just as the emergency relief phase stabilized, disaster struck again. On November 12, less than three months later, another violent earthquake, this one registering 7.2 on the Richter scale, struck near the city of D=FCzce, killing almost 1,000 people. Tremors rattled even Istanbul and the capital city of Ankara, more than 200 miles away.

Even though official estimates report that 18,000 Turkish residents perished during the 1999 quakes, many believe the actual number of victims was above 25,000 people. The World Bank stated that final damage estimates surpassed $6 billion, as the public infrastructure crumbled under the weight of personal and economic losses.

With lives and cities in ruins, the Federation launched a long-term effort backing construction projects, including five new schools, in earthquake-affected areas. They encouraged the installation of earthquake resistant building methods within the structures to withstand future tremors.

"The best way to protect people's lives is to design buildings that can withstand earthquakes," says Azmat Ulla, former project manager of Federation construction programs in Turkey. "After all, we're here because so many people were killed as a result of buildings falling on them."

American Red Cross Continues to Respond

Thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent workers joined in the monumental humanitarian response that took place in 1999. Following the emergency phase, the American Red Cross assisted the TRCS with broad reaching technical and material support to strengthen the organization's effectiveness during the emergency preparedness and response cycles, an effort which continues in 2003.

"The past six months we've focused on community education programs that help people reduce hazards in their homes that otherwise might be serious threats during earthquakes or other disasters," said O'Donnell, who recently returned to the U.S. after more than three years in Turkey. "In June, 10 branches of the TRCS took part in 'training trainers' for these community preparedness courses that were developed by Bogazici University with support from the American Red Cross and TRCS."

"The American Red Cross looks forward to continuing this focus on community preparedness for the remaining two years of the Partnership Agreement signed between ARC and TRCS in 2000," he added.

Since the 1999 quakes, the American Red Cross delegation in Turkey has assisted the TRCS with enhancing its response management systems, and improving planning and preparedness, while supporting the TRCS in its efforts to build and equip a disaster operation center (DOC) in Turkey's capital city of Ankara.

The TRCS DOC is the center of coordination for planning and response activities and is capable of the same national emergency response activities as the American Red Cross DOC in Washington, D.C, on which it is modeled.

American Red Cross efforts are also helping the TRCS strengthen its community first aid training programs and communications strategies in an overall effort to increase the TRCS preparedness and response capacities.

"Before that earthquake, we thought we were prepared, but now we know that we need to plan and prepare for disasters of that size or larger," said Tasli. "And now we are undertaking that work."

Seismologists predict that a major earthquake will strike the densely populated Turkish city of Istanbul within the next 30 years, thus demonstrating the enormous need for preparedness among its more than 9 million residents because, as Turkish residents say, it's not a matter of if there will be another major quake - it's only a matter of when.

What You Can Do to Help

To continue supporting Red Cross partners in humanitarian efforts in Turkey and around the world, the American Red Cross needs resources to expand its emergency food distributions, long-term recovery programs and initiatives. Donations to the International Response Fund can be mailed to your local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013 or by visiting our secure online donation page.

American Red Cross
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is provided at no cost, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. The Red Cross also supplies nearly half of the nation's lifesaving blood. This, too, is made possible by generous voluntary donations. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. To donate blood, please call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE (1-800-448-3543), or contact your local Red Cross to find out about upcoming blood drives. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.