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A woman reacts as rescuers search for survivors through the rubble of collapsed buildings in Adana, Turkey, on 6 February 2023 after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast. (Photo by Can Erk, AFP, Getty)

Search and Rescue Underway in Turkey and Syria After Massive Earthquake

Update: 9 February 2023, 5:00 p.m. EST

The search for survivors continues for a fourth night after a series of devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. The death toll from the quakes has surpassed 20,000, and the tally is expected to rise still higher as crews sift through the rubble from thousands of fallen buildings.

Most people in the region were asleep indoors when the quakes hit in the early morning of 6 February, putting large populations at risk when the tremors started. Rescue crews have been working for days to locate people and dig them out of the destruction, and although there have been some miraculous rescues—including that of a newborn girl—the chances of finding more people alive are fading, Al Jazeera reported.

The freezing cold weather in the region poses a risk of a second disaster, warned representatives from the World Health Organization. Thousands of people are displaced or without safe shelter, food, water, fuel, and medicine, Dr. Hans Kluge, regional WHO director for Europe, told the BBC. Water reservoirs in Syria were toppled in the earthquakes, and lack of clean water could exacerbate the spread of cholera and other health risks.

Turkish President Recep Rayyip Erdogan called the earthquakes “the disaster of the century.”  

Update: 7 February 2023, 9:00 a.m. EST

The death toll from a series of earthquakes along the border of Turkey and Syria continues to rise. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the death toll in southeastern Turkey has risen to 3,549, bringing the combined total number of people killed in the two countries to more than 5,000. The number is expected to sharply rise as more search and rescue crews arrive and begin their work.

Rescuers are in a race against time and weather to reach victims, especially as near-freezing temperatures set in and more than 200 aftershocks rumbled through the area. According to Turkish state media, more than 7,800 people were rescued on 6 February. Some survivors took shelter in large buildings such as shopping centers, mosques, or stadiums, but many remained outside, keeping warm around large bonfires built using debris from damaged buildings, The New York Times reported. Thousands of people are sleeping in cars to avoid getting stuck in buildings due to an aftershock.

Erdogan announced a three-month state of emergency across the 10 provinces worst affected by the quakes, Al Jazeera reported. He also declared seven days of national mourning.

The Turkish government has recommended people leave the southern city of Sanliurfa—a heavily battered city that, combined with nearby urban settlements, has a population of about 12 million people—to avoid further casualties as damaged buildings shift and settle.

Meanwhile, outside aid groups—including the United Nations and assistance from 70 different nations—are facing challenges getting resources into the region due to power cuts, blocked roads, and other disruptions.

Thousands of people were injured in the disaster, and the health system in war-torn northern Syria faces severe challenges to keep up, the Times reported. Some of the regions hit by the earthquakes are outside the central government’s control, having been the center of a decade-long civil war, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is facing pressure from the international community to ensure any outside humanitarian aid—including search and rescue teams and healthcare assistance—reaches earthquake victims quickly.

6 February 2023, 11:00 a.m. EST

Thousands of people are dead or injured after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and neighboring Syria in the early hours of 6 February. The earthquake was felt as far away as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, and it was followed by a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and dozens of aftershocks, The Washington Post reported.

Rescue efforts are ongoing.

What We Know So Far

As of 5:00 p.m. local time, at least 2,300 people are now confirmed dead from the earthquakes. Turkish authorities confirmed 1,498 deaths, and another 810 were reported in Syria, according to Al Jazeera. More than 9,700 people were wounded in Turkey alone, officials reported.

The earthquakes brought thousands of buildings crashing to the ground, trapping many people inside. The death toll is expected to climb as search efforts continue. The Turkish government declared a level 4 state of emergency, which includes a call for international assistance and the mobilization of all national forces.

Videos have emerged showing large fires in southern Turkey—people on the ground claim that the earthquake caused gas pipelines to burst and catch fire, the BBC reported. Turkish energy minister Fatih Dönmez said there is  serious damage to the country’s infrastructure, but he did not specifically mention explosions.

At least 10 cities in southeastern Turkey are affected, and approximately 10 million people live in this region. At least two hospitals are among the buildings that collapsed, Al Jazeera noted, and the size of the multistory buildings that fell has further complicated rescue efforts. The vast area hit by the quakes has spread rescue personnel thin, and relatives of people who live in rural villages near the epicenter of the earthquakes fear that help might not reach the countryside soon enough, The New York Times reported.

Relief Efforts Underway

Other countries are quickly deploying additional teams and resources to help. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that its emergency teams are ready to be deployed to Turkey and Syria. Israel said it will send search and rescue teams to Turkey and Syria, the BBC reported, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has also pledged aid. Leaders from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, India, the Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States have pledged support, and many have search and rescue teams standing by to deploy.

Humanitarian groups warn that immediate, basic assistance will be needed, especially as temperatures drop and many people have lost shelter and access to their possessions. Heavy rain, snow, and below-freezing temperatures are expected in much of the affected area during the next few days—both endangering survivors’ health and complicating rescue efforts.

Schools across Turkey will be closed until 13 February, Al Jazeera reported.

The earthquakes are the strongest to hit Turkey since 1999 when a 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit Istanbul, killing 17,500 people. The country is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones—with two major fault lines running through the region—but today’s quakes have been particularly devastating for two reasons.

Firstly, it was a relatively shallow quake—only 11 miles (18 km) beneath the surface of the earth. Generally, the closer the earthquake is to the surface, the more intense the tremor will feel.

Secondly, older buildings in Turkey are more vulnerable to disasters. Massive and rapid migration across Turkey in the 1950s led to poorly supervised urban development that made cities “critically vulnerable” to natural hazards, according to Turkey’s National Earthquake Strategy and Action Plan for 2012 to 2023.

After the earthquake in 1999, Turkish authorities approved legislation to enforce mandatory design checks and construction inspections on all buildings, and new construction is much more resilient to disasters. But the thousands of buildings that collapsed today (2,900 of them as of 5:00 p.m. local time) were primarily built before those regulations were in place.