Day 2 Turkey Operations Update from “PJ” Josh Webster

"PJ" Josh Webster

Joshua Maverick Webster is currently an Army Officer stationed in Vicenza, Italy. He recently spent 8 years as an Air Force Pararescueman “PJ” for the 131st Rescue Squadron in Mountain View, California. He previously served as an Army Ranger Team Leader at 2/75th Ranger Battalion and was released honorably after two combat tours in Afghanistan. He is a registered Paramedic and holds a B.A. in History from UCLA.

26 October 2011

Snow covered the local mountain ranges, and sprinkled all the way down to the 7000 ft mark. Ercis sat just above 5000 ft, so we were spared from the snow for the time being. The rain came though, it swarmed through the refugee camps and became torrents that ran between every tent and food station. The morning trash dogs prowled through the debris from the previous 72 hours, searching for any food to eat, and early in the morning another baby was born in the makeshift clinic set up inside the local gymnasium.

The German medical team Humedica and Team Rubicon’s scout team (consisting of us two paramedics) decided to travel into the nearby Kurdish villages to follow up on reports that they had received no direct medical treatment yet. The older German surgeon warned me that communication was particularly bad in regards to intermingling the Turkish and non-Turkish medical staffs, but that it must be our duty, and these were his words, to “find a gap”. Those three words, so similar to the anthem of Team Rubicon, resonated in us as we headed out into the villages to make our medical assessment.

Red Crescent “camps” dotted the sides of the road near the larger villages where the villagers were too scared to sleep in their own houses, for fear of more aftershocks. Their fears were confirmed the night prior when a 15-second aftershock awoke everyone from their slumber. As we traveled through the small villages near Ercis it also became obvious how localized the earthquake actually was. Only the 10-city blocks in downtown Ercis seemed ruined. Everything else was either lightly damaged or not damaged at all. The small Kurdish village dwellings, built from mud and brick, stood resolute and firm against the dingy afternoon sky. The towns-folk pushed us further and further into the countryside looking for injured personnel. After a few hours we headed back to Ercis, confident that we had done a full sweep and encountered no acute injuries. We even helped a guy jump start his car, and I pushed another out the mud. All in a days work I guess.

At one of these makeshift “camps” we encountered – built on a football pitch – a mobile medical bus had arrived and was waiting for doctors to staff it. The medical bus coordinator assured us that we might be needed to treat patients, but the organizers at the larger camp earlier had told us the opposite. This was similar to what we had been told thus far by Turkish coordination officials. The medical coordinators told us to talk to the government officials, and the government officials told us to talk to the medical coordinators. Meanwhile the temperature outside was still dropping, and around noon it was a brisk 40 degrees. This particular camp seemed absolutely capable of running without us. The camp had tents for everyone, pallets of water bottles everywhere, food, bags of clothing, and security. The women of the camp were busying themselves with motherly duties, and even the kids were happy and warm. It seemed the Turkish had this area well under control as well.

Back at the larger Red Crescent camp we made our final 48-hour assessment. German Humedica, Japanese Tokushukai, and American Team Rubicon had run into the same road blocks when trying to help in Ercis.

  • As far as Search-and-Rescue, the Turk’s had multiple teams ready to pick apart the buildings that lay in piles of rubble four days after the initial quake had knocked them down. The SAR manpower was overwhelming, with Turkish SAR teams leapfrogging work shifts in order to stay busy. Nobody was being pulled from the wreckage alive any longer, and the pace of work had slowed to a methodical recovery approach.
  • Medically, there were mobile clinical buses sent from Istanbul that would practice Primary Care medicine in the aftermath of the earthquake. The injuries treated consisted of: aches and pains, general illness, childbirth issues, and accidents. None of these disease processes were earthquake related. There was no need for Emergency Medical Personnel any longer, those needs had been met in the first 48 hours after the earthquake. Now the city needed Turkish doctors and nurses who spoke the language and practiced by the customs that their medical system abided by.
  • Logistically, it was difficult for anybody to “gain entry” into the Turkish EMS system. The government officials seemed willing to handle us like diplomats, which was a problem because everyone who came to help was a working medic. The medical and SAR teams preferred to work with their own people for multiple reasons and referred us all back to the local politicians. This lack of meaningful partnership was because: we weren’t paid workers rather volunteers, the initial government decision to forgo international aid was still resonating, we had never worked together before, and we didn’t speak Turkish. With as many Turks as they needed, foreigners were an afterthought.

So despite our efforts very few of the foreigners got any real chance to work. A German nurse saw a few patients but he said he could have easily not been there and any multitude of Turkish nurses standing by could have done the same job. The Japanese team began trash collecting in an attempt to be useful, and Nathan and I pushed a car out of the mud and jump-started another. The Humedica team and TR also had done a thorough localized sweep for injured villagers and found everyone healthy. The localization of the quake mitigated any external medical crisis.

We broke from camp and headed back into town to watch the SAR teams digging with shovels on top of destroyed buildings. Some were using cutting tools to get through the thick rebar and cement, others merely used their hands to sift through the broken cement. The town has still not returned to life, but people crowded the streets watching the workers, snapping pictures of their once beautiful downtown, and wondering when life would get back to normal.