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HATAY, TURKEY - 9 MARCH: A child carries humanitarian aid with a trolley in Yanikpinar neighborhood, where people are reluctant to abandon their ancestral lands even though devastating earthquakes hit southern Turkey. (Photo by Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Turkey: Election Moved Up as Earthquake Recovery, Response Efforts Continue

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday he is moving the country’s national elections up one month to 14 May, despite ongoing recovery efforts following February’s devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

“We are starting the election calendar even as we are focusing all of our attention on healing the wounds caused by the earthquake, rebuilding and restoring our cities, and ensuring that our people obtain homes as soon as possible,” Erdogan said, as reported by the Associated Press. “We need to implement a program that will heal the wounds of an unprecedented destruction in an unprecedented speed. The only way to overcome the direct and indirect effects of the earthquake and normalize the situation in the region and our country as soon as possible is through the implementation of decisions by a strong political will.” 

The recovery situation in Turkey remains dire. Turkish officials said at least 47,000 people were killed in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck on 6 February. Many people were inside their homes, asleep, at the time the quake struck, making them especially vulnerable to injuries from structural collapses.

The initial quake was followed by several strong aftershocks, causing further damage to the region. Assessments from the World Bank estimate that the earthquake caused $34 billion in immediate damage—roughly 4 percent of Turkey’s annual economic output. 

“The Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation estimates the total cost of the quake at $84.1 billion, the lion’s share of which would be for housing, at $70.8 billion, with lost national income pegged at $10.4 billion and lost working days at $2.91 billion,” CNN reports. 

Due to the widespread damage, more than 1 million people remain homeless, basic commodities are in short supply, and certain regions—including Hatay—are bringing in potable water for survivors because the water main system was damaged in the earthquakes.

A primary focus of Erdogan’s presidential re-election campaign is likely to be focused on the reconstruction of Turkey following the earthquakes.

“The Turkish leader has conceded shortfalls in his government’s response in the early stages of the earthquake, but said that rescue efforts were hampered by winter weather and the destruction of infrastructure,” the AP reports. “He has promised to rebuild tens of thousands of homes within the year.”

Erdogan rose to power on a similar platform following a 1999 earthquake that struck Kocaeli Province of Turkey, killing at least 18,000 people.  His government’s response to the 2023 earthquake has been criticized, including inability to communicate with the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) in the hours after the disaster struck.

Security Perspective

Orhan Topcu, a crisis management expert and ASIS member living in Istanbul, remembers the shaking in his building when the 17 August 1999 earthquake struck and the fear that came after evacuating the building and seeing the damage.

“It was the very early hours of the morning. I remember because I was about to go to bed when the building started to shake,” he recalls. “That 45 seconds was like 45 years—never stopping and not showing any sign of coming to an end.”

Topcu was working in the Turkish National Police Data Processing Department at the time, and soon went to work in a communications role with the Ministry of Interior to help manage the crisis. The emergency response was unstructured and uncoordinated, with no capacity to respond to the scale of such a disaster, Topcu says, adding that the communications technology at the time—analog, subject to distortion—made it even more difficult.

“The roles and responsibilities for the full cycle of disaster management were not there—only a few bits and pieces of the response portion of the cycle were there, represented by a couple of government institutions,” he explains.

A U.S. Congressional Research Service report found that the Turkish government had a slow response in 1999 due in part to deficient emergency preparedness, “typified by lack of civil defense operations, coordination, search and rescue teams and equipment, or other trained personnel,” according to the report. Instead, civil society—nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and individual citizens—stood up to fill that void in the response. 

The team Topcu worked with in 1999 would go on to take pivotal roles in Turkey’s recovery and in attempting to build a new crisis management capability. The head of the team became the first general manager of the AFAD and Topcu was temporarily assigned as the technical advisor to the general manager.

They mapped out emergency management cycle roles and responsibilities. The AFAD would take on the role of enforcing and coordinating all phases of disaster and emergency management, and had a footprint in several administerial divisions of Turkey. Additionally, Turkey’s Parliament passed several laws to help improve building codes and implement a tax structure to make facilities more resilient to future earthquakes.

In 2009, however, Turkish Parliament passed legislation to move the AFAD under the authority of the nation’s prime minister—then a role held by Erdogan. Topcu says the agency was then moved under the authority of the Ministry of Interior (where it continues to reside) and critical positions were filled with “politically motivated” assignments.

Topcu ultimately left the government and has gone on to a role in the private sector. When the February 2023 earthquake struck, his initial thoughts were that there would be damage but there would be a functioning system in place that would improve the response.

“However, I forgot one—and the most important—component of this equation: the government and their ill management,” he says. After the 7.8-magnitude quake, for instance, he says there was no message, warning, or direction from the government to people about how to respond.

“All I heard was ‘everything under control,’” Topcu says, adding that the government went even further cutting off social media and blocking Twitter—the main communication channel for the affected population.

The earthquake has affected everyone in Turkey emotionally—especially those who have lost family members—and the uncoordinated response has added more negative feelings, Topcu says.

“Everyone rushed to help by any means, financially, volunteering, etcetera, what ever can be done,” he explains, adding that “the main feelings are still rooted in anger towards a nonfunctioning, ill-managed,” government structure that did not do enough to prevent the thousands of lives lost.

What Security Practitioners Can Do

There are aid organizations that security practitioners can donate to and support to help recovery efforts in Turkey. Topcu also stresses that practitioners should look at how they can improve the disaster management cycle in their organizations. This cycle consists of the pre-disaster stage (preparedness, prevention, and mitigation); the mid-disaster stage (response and relief); and post-disaster (rehabilitation, reconstruction, and recovery).

“Every individual and every organization should include the disaster management cycle in their life, work, or service,” he says.

Pre-Disaster. “Security practitioners are naturally first responders to any disaster or emergency, therefore they themselves have to ready and prepare,” he says.

This means not only taking part in training activities, drills, and exercises, but also in planning activities focused on extended and holistic risk assessment. Security practitioners should understand the potential hazards, their scope, and the relationships they need to build with stakeholders to ensure preparedness measures are in place to holistically address threats as they arise.

“Security practitioners should look at risk with a wider, bigger, deeper mindset, and keep deterring those risks with a fully collaborative attitude and preventative approach,” Topcu adds. “It is our duty to protect and serve, and our mission requires more gears of knowledge, collaboration, and hard work, rather than just guns and guards at the gates.”

A resource to help guide practitioners with this stage that Topcu recommends is the United Nation’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which provides resources to learn from and apply to their organization.

Mid-Disaster. This is the stage where security acts on its pre-disaster preparations, and where failures can occur if those preparations have not been exercised beforehand, Topcu says.

In this phase, security practitioners can play an especially important role in securely transporting people to safety and getting supplies to those that need them, as well as protecting assets and assisting the overall disaster response.

Post-Disaster. This stage is sometimes forgotten or ignored, but Topcu says this stage is key to keeping the social fabric and institutions intact.

“The security industry is always there to protect the rights of people, and usually is the very first hand to help victims,” Topcu says. “If security professionals cannot develop and improve their muscles towards rehabilitation capabilities, they will certainly suffer from disconnect and eventually lose the trust of society. This is the biggest risk.”

To avoid this, security practitioners in this stage should focus on fixing and correcting mistakes in the pre- and mid-disaster stages to help their organizations and society become more resilient.

“Security services should use this opportunity to redesign and rebuild all functions in this cycle, from instructions to protocols to administrative plans for the mission of the organization to education to equipment,” Topcu adds. “The key is to be more resilient every day. This is where organizational—and even personal resilience—becomes more vibrant and important.”

Taking these preparations and working through the various stages of the disaster management cycle will help correct wrong doings, address vulnerabilities, and make practitioners more prepared to respond when incidents—including natural phenomena like earthquakes—strike.

“There are human errors which can easily turn some phenomena into a disaster,” Topcu says. “Therefore, it is our duty to work hard to minimize those human errors.”