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Responding to Turkey’s Devastating Earthquake

The disaster response group, AKUT, pulled survivors from the rubble of last month's Aegean quake. Now, they're providing ongoing support to Turkey's displaced.

An AKUT search-and-rescue team works in the ruins of a building destroyed by the October 30 earthquake. (Photo courtesy of AKUT)
An AKUT search-and-rescue team works in the ruins of a building destroyed by the October 30 earthquake. (Photo courtesy of AKUT)

On October 30, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake originating in the Aegean Sea ripped through the province of Izmir, in Turkey, causing widespread damage to the country’s third-largest city.

Immediately following the earthquake, a tsunami damaged parts of the coastline. At least 116 people were killed, and over 1,000 injured. According to the Turkish disaster response group, AKUT, more than 4,000 families have lost their homes.

More than 80 camps were established to house those displaced.

New aftershocks regularly shake the area, with more than 1,400 recorded thus far, AKUT reported. “Every day we have at least magnitude 3 earthquakes,” said Gülçin Güreşçi, the group’s CEO.

And although some have found alternate housing or have been accommodated in local hotels, hundreds are still living in campsites facing ongoing displacement as winter falls on Turkey.

In the aftermath of the quake, AKUT’s volunteers dug through the rubble, rescuing nine people along with several cats and dogs – and a rabbit, Güreşçi said.

It’s no surprise. Originally founded by a small group of self-sufficient mountain climbers, AKUT, a Turkish search-and-rescue and aid organization, has grown to approximately 3,000 volunteers accustomed to disaster response – and to providing ongoing and when the event is over.

After participating in the rescue effort, AKUT’s next priority is to distribute much-needed supplies to people displaced by the quake.

To support AKUT in its ongoing response to the earthquake, Direct Relief is providing the organization with a $50,000 emergency grant, along with a donation of emergency medical backpacks designed to address a wide range of health issues in the field.

Güreşçi’s biggest concern is those still living in camps, in close quarters amid the pandemic. To complicate matters, Turkey’s cold winter has begun.

The group’s support will focus on children, those with disabilities or at high risk of Covid complications, vulnerable women-led households, and Turkey’s large refugee population.

The country currently hosts approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees, along with hundreds of thousands from other nationalities. (The Brookings Institute said that Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world.) According to AKUT, refugees are more likely to be afraid to ask for government or other support, due to their uncertain status.

AKUT is working to distribute bags containing emergency supplies such as blankets and headlamps, along with masks, hand sanitizer, and first aid kit materials to those still displaced by the quake. With Direct Relief’s grant, the group anticipates that it will be able to reach approximately 2,000 people with support.

In addition, the group is working to promote awareness of Covid-19 in the camps and to educate those staying there about safe practices such as handwashing and social distancing.

Covid-19 and associated lockdowns have made it more complicated for AKUT to distribute aid, Güreşçi said. Although the organization has about 300 volunteers on the ground, they must move through the camps escorted and in small groups.

Officials running the camps “want to see that we are protected from Covid and don’t have Covid to spread,” she explained.

But Güreşçi said that the government has been responsive in providing housing, medical aid, and other support, and that community response has been strong as well.

“People are kind in Izmir,” she said.

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