Earthquake: what to expect

10 Feb 2023

Back in 2012, in my Turkish Cluster Forecast, item #4 said, “There is a better than 50% chance of a major earthquake before 2025, and minor quakes are a near certainty.” Unfortunately, that prediction was one that came true this week.

Turkey sits on top of two major earthquake belts. One is the North Anatolian Fault, running the length of the country on an east-west line just south of Istanbul. In the east near Erzurum, it joins the East Anatolian Fault, running at an angle to the Syrian border. Turkey experiences a magnitude-7 earthquake, on average, at least once every 20 years, and it is not uncommon to have multiple magnitude-7 quakes in a given year; these earthquakes can be devastating if they strike in vulnerable places: the August 1999 earthquake was measured at 7.6 and killed tens of thousands of people. Magnitude-6 earthquakes are even more common: at least 1 every 5 years. Turkey has never experienced on record an earthquake stronger than 8.0, but it is not impossible to rule out.

The earthquake this week measured 7.8. The scale is logarithmic, so 7.8 is significantly worse than 7.6. It tied with the 1939 Erzincan earthquake as the strongest recorded in modern times, and is the deadliest globally since the 2010 Haiti quake. Its epicenter was near Gaziantep, not far from the Syrian border and just south of Kahramanmas. Among the aftershocks, an unusually strong aftershock of 7.5 had its epicenter north of that, west of Malatya.

Not only was this quake strong, it hit a particularly vulnerable area—poor, and with lots of refugees in not very well developed areas. Many of the buildings in the area were not earthquake proof. The combined death toll in Turkey and Syria has passed 24,000 as of this writing. More than 21,000 of this total was in Turkey alone, but Syria’s is almost certainly severely undercounted (one estimate that suggested Syria was over 16,000). I’ve seen at least one estimate the total death toll could surpass 100,000, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it did. A 7.5 earthquake struck a similarly poor region in Kashmir in 2005, and left over 79,000 dead and millions homeless.

The region is now in Stage 1 of post-disaster work—the immediate task of saving everyone they can. This stage is is a race against the clock, measured in days, usually no more than a week. Heartbreaking stories always come out of this period, as well as ‘miracle moments’: one illustrative combination is the story of a baby born under the rubble. The baby was saved, but the mother died.

Already, an enormous outpouring of support is being seen, and an enormous need is being made known. Units of supplies are being measured in the 10s and 100s of 1000s (tents, blankets, food stuffs, etc). Local Christians are helping in this process, and of course global aid workers and organizations are moving in as well.

During this period, the quick work of regional and global humanitarian efforts will be important, but will unfortunately always be late due to logistical snarls. This morning, a UN aid convoy rolled into northwest Syria—the first significant aid delivery since the disaster occurred. There have been several stories about issues with borders and misunderstandings about sanctions (there are humanitarian exceptions to all the sanctions). My own experience with this was being on an aid convoy into Aceh after the December 4 tsunami, and the challenges of getting aid into the area.

Political issues will also likely roil this disasters, as they often do in these situations. We’ll see lots of news articles about the impact of politics on providing relief, and the impact of the disaster on politics. Turkey has already issued a state of emergency for the 10 provinces. There’s been talk of how an earthquake helped to bring Erdogan to power, and how this one might usher him out. I hold these sorts of things very loosely.

Another issue will be scams and corruption. Where money goes, scams and scam artists follow. The reputation of organizations will become very important. Yet despite reputation, there will be stories of mismanagement and corruption within aid organizations. It will be a difficult time all around.

Of course, 100,000 dead—if that’s how high it went—terrible as it would be, would still represent just 0.2% of Turkey’s total population. Even more impactful would be the far larger number—probably numbering in the millions—who would be wounded, or homeless, or workless, etc.

Lots of people obviously die during the earthquake. Another wave of people die in the first week, because they can’t be dug out of collapsed buildings in time. Yet another wave of people will die due to exposure and health issues in the months to come, and getting continued aid into the region will be a huge issue. People are camping in parks, sleeping in tents or mattresses on the ground—and this is the dead of winter. Exposure to the cold can and will kill.

While the first week is mostly about who is on-site, and who can get there fastest (usually military and top level humanitarian aid orgs), the first month starts to see a transition from “fast” orgs (emergency responders) to a split between “big” orgs (dealing with big-ticket infrastructure things like power, heat, water, and so on) and mid-to-small orgs that help in specific situations. Great Commission workers begin to play a role at this point, but it takes people who are willing to live in the midst of great uncertainty.

One recent report I saw illustrates the challenges of this period: “what a devastation. We got here after 28 hours of drive. We don’t have internet all the time, and there is no electricity or water. The city is gone and thousands of people are still trapped under the collapsed buildings… the biggest problems for people survived is shelter, food, heat and toilets. There are literally no toilets. This will take years to recover from.”

Three to six months after the disaster, another transition occurs which can carry on for years—rebuilding. This is where Great Commission workers (including movements) can really shine. Not only is there a lot of construction work, there’s also a lot of emotional rebuilding, and this will be especially true in this situation. “Every person we met has lot someone or their family is trapped under the collapsed buildings. Some people are still alive but it’s difficult to impossible to get them out in time.” This is the current situation—in the months to come, people will have to deal with the emotional toll, the loss of employment, the health issues, and more. Walking with people through these situations is something movements have done in other locations, to great effect.

Not to be forgotten is the impact of the earthquake across the border in Syria. Turkey was devastated, and Syria even more so. Syria was reeling from the impact of the long civil war, and the area hit was one full of refugees. The devastation is immense, and no one even really knows how many people were lost there. It could easily equal the devastation in Turkey.