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Erdogan tours disaster zone in Turkey as death toll climbs past 11,000

Feb. 8, 2023 Updated Wed., Feb. 8, 2023 at 7:49 p.m.

Residents queue for aid items in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Wednesday.  (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)
Residents queue for aid items in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Wednesday. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)
By Louisa Loveluck, Kareem Fahim, Zeynep Karatas, Leo Sands and Ellen Francis Washington Post

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in his country’s earthquake-shattered south on Wednesday as the death toll passed 11,000, and rescue workers in neighboring Syria said that they had found colleagues among the dead.

Monday’s powerful earthquake and its aftershocks have leveled towns and cities across Turkey and Syria, compounding existing humanitarian crises and creating new ones.

On a visit to Hatay, one of the most devastated provinces, Erdogan announced the death toll in Turkey had surpassed 9,000, and nearly 53,000 people had been injured.

He pledged that ruined cities and towns would be rebuilt in a year, though the task will be enormous – the tally of collapsed buildings has risen to more than 6,444, he said.

Earlier, in Kahramanmaras, the city at the earthquake’s epicenter, Erdogan struck a note of reassurance. “Our citizens should not worry; we will never let them remain unsheltered,” he said, describing plans to help the newly homeless by making hotel beds available.

The state air carrier, Turkish Airlines, said it had evacuated almost 20,000 people from the disaster zone, with an additional 30,000 passengers slated to fly that day.

As donations pour in from around the world, aid groups say the needs are overwhelming. In the ruined city of Adiyaman in the southeast, chaotic and makeshift distribution areas for humanitarian supplies sprang up along the central boulevard Wednesday.

A huge line of people formed at the entrance to the town to take rations of water that were being handed out. At another aid point near the city center, Esref Tuncer, 60, showed up hoping to find blankets but walked away with some thin-looking socks and two sweaters instead.

Other families raced around him, trying to secure one of the large tents sent by Turkey’s disaster management authority, as scuffles broke out around the truck.

Erdogan said Wednesday that the Turkish government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira, or $530, to “each of our families,” but it was not immediately clear who would be eligible for the aid or how they would claim it.

In government-controlled areas of neighboring Syria, a country 12 years deep into a civil war, at least 1,262 people were killed in the quakes, and another 2,285 were wounded, state media reported Wednesday. Meanwhile, in the beleaguered rebel-held northwest, rescue workers said they had recorded more than 1,400 deaths and 2,700 injuries.

They also found the bodies of their own amid the rubble. The Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, which operates in areas outside government control, said Wednesday that four of its volunteers, and their families, were among the quake victims.

Doctors Without Borders said one of its employees was found dead under the rubble of his home in Idlib province.

“We are very shocked and saddened by the impact of this disaster on the thousands of people touched by it, including our colleagues and their families,” Sebastien Gay, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Syria, said in a statement.

Hopes for the survival of those still lying under the rubble were fading by the hour as temperatures hovered close to freezing. Rescue workers have traveled from around the world to aid in the effort, a process quickened by the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, which allowed the body to coordinate the deployment of more than 1,100 rescuers from 21 countries.

Syria tried to do the same on Wednesday, but it was unclear to what effect. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been a pariah among many Western governments, which have accused him of crimes against humanity for bombarding densely populated civilian areas, including the medical facilities that serve them, throughout the war.

In the rebel-held pocket in the northwest, no aid has crossed the border since the earthquakes, blocked by a likely mix of genuine infrastructure damage along the one road sanctioned for U.N. use, as well as by political obstructionism on the part of Assad’s government and his allies.

Yet the needs are overwhelming on both sides of the conflict line.

“Almost 90 percent of the population depends on humanitarian action,” said Fabrizio Carboni, Near and Middle East Regional Director for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Just a couple of weeks ago, we were engaged in a cholera response, then there’s the climate crisis, too. The list of humanitarian challenges, even taken in isolation, would be huge. And they are coming one after the other.”

The World Health Organization warned on Wednesday of a “huge, long-term” impact on health care in Turkey and Syria and said there was a need to prevent a potential surge of respiratory infections.

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told Sky News that aid groups were sending supplies for surgical and trauma care as rescuers continued to pull people from the rubble. But the specter of a broader health crisis was also looming, she said, making it important to quickly provide other health services, including wheelchairs and medicine for chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension.

“There’s so much long-term change to people’s health,” she said. “We saw a baby that was born under the rubble yesterday. Babies will be born in the next few days to people sheltering in cars.” Harris said early assessments showed damage to at least 15 hospitals and hundreds of health facilities across the two countries.

In Turkey, the health minister said Wednesday that 77 field hospitals were set up in 10 regions across the south. “We’ve got to look at preventing infectious diseases,” Harris said. “People are crowded together in the cold in difficult circumstances whose immune system is under tremendous stress.”

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