28 October 2011
Team Rubicon sent a small scout team to recon the earthquake disaster zones near Van Lake in eastern Turkey. Transportation to these areas took almost 72 hours by air due to their relative isolation and austerity. By then most of the “emergency” had given way to a controlled government response. There were gaps in certain areas of the response, but some were either too specific to address (toilets,OB/GYN) and others were endemic (faulty construction, lack of organization). While on the ground it was the scout team’s mission to provide an honest assessment of the situation, and call for mobilization of a full team should it be deemed necessary. While the scout team saw no such need, they worked to fill the gaps in response that they could address. They helped set up tents for the injured, searched the local villages for lapses in medical attention, conducted assessments of general camp conditions, and identified potential refugee camp disease processes. All of these actions were conducted with heavy hearts as the true toll of the disaster unfolded.
Team Rubicon maintains the highest state of alert for disasters such as these around the world, and continues to monitor developing crisis in an effort to Bridge the Gap should one be discovered. As the scout team leader, it is my duty to deploy to such locations and it is with the greatest sorrow that I witness such human sufffering. We at Team Rubicon, as well as Nathan and myself, will support the efforts of the Turkish government as they continue to rebuild and recover from the earthquake that destroyed so many lives.
The plane from Van to Ankara, Turkey was filled with so many people in orange and red jackets that for a moment I thought I was at a Texas v. A&M game (that’s a pretty obscure college football reference). The dog handlers, medical rescue, search-and-rescue, and paramedics were all headed back to their respective countries or regions of Turkey. Since “emergency services” were largely unnecessary, many of the most experienced personnel could now return home and rest. The SAR teams that remained in Ercis consisted of a large organization from Turkey called J.A.K mixed with locals who had shovels and wanted to help find the bodies of their friends or family and maybe recover some personal belongings among the rubble.
Any analysis of the Turkish earthquake response would need to address the key factors that played into the government’s initial announcement that they were denying international aid, and then subsequent announcement that they would accept foreign aid. These key components of the Turkish response were: Medical response, Search-and-Rescue (SAR) efforts, shelter/warmth, food/water.
In the initial aftermath of the earthquake the hospital in Ercis was abandoned. The medical staff worked outside or in the local gymnasium, since it showed no signs of falling down and was 2 miles away from the downtown “epicenter”, whereas the hospital was directly in the epicenter. The Turkish government scrambled their helicopter assets to Ercis, and those badly injured were flown to the cities of Van or Erzezum. The Ercis city medical staff dealt with the first wave of injured, followed by the large E.M.U.T Organization staff that numbered close to a thousand. E.M.K.U took over the gymnasium and complimented those at the local hospital, which opened again 2 days after the quake. Anyone injured was stabilized in Ercis, and then driven or flown to Van depending on the severity of their injury. Follow-on medical staff, who could not speak turkish, lent a hand where they could. The medical need shifted late Wednesday night to Primary Care and “Camp-Care” (sanitation, toilet facilities maintenance). Team Rubicon’s scout team witnessed the non-turkish NGO community do the following: augmented the “camp clinic” during the nighttime hours, assisted in OB/GYN cases which required specialized care, flew in medical supplies from their host country, and conducting primary care.
The pictures that everybody saw from the news on Sunday night consisted of local townspeople climbing through rubble to pull people out of their collapsed homes. That happened immediately after the 7.2 earthquake, and continued until the EMS system at Van could get to the scene. After conducting a damage assessment, Turkish EMS Coordinators sent the entire group to Ercis. In Ercis, the SAR teams took over and within 24 hours were conducting technical rescue. Within 48 hours the large A.K.U.T teams were in Ercis working frantically to discover anyone alive in the damaged buildings, and still pulling out living people. At the 48-hour mark the first non-turkish NGO’s from Europe arrived (Humedica) and they were augmenting the E.M.K.U medical staff in the camp clinics. At the 96-hour mark the Asian and American NGO’s arrived. This was due to their relative distances away from Turkey, as both teams had deployed Sunday when the earthquake first occurred. They flew in on the same flight, the first available from Istanbul, but soon realized that 96-hours into the recovery is simply too late to expect survivability. Although the occasional survivor was recovered at 72 hours, by 96 hours that expectation had dropped to nearly zero. By Wednesday night a person was miraculously pulled out of a collapse alive, but died while in the hospital. In regards to SAR, Team Rubicon’s scout team witnessed the non-turkish NGO community do the following: combine efforts to do a search of the local villages to identify any medical need that was overshadowed by the catastrophe in Ercis, conduct search through downtown looking for signs of imminent collapse caused by inclement weather.
After the earthquake everyone near the epicenter in downtown Ercis immediately left their homes. It was late October, a storm was on the horizon, and temperatures were dropping to freezing at night. The Turkish government mobilized the Red Crescent to send blankets, tents, and clothing to the affected earthquake areas. Those supplies were being handed out in a 500 person long line when the American and Japanese NGO’s first arrived. The people had, up until then, been camped out under tarps and plastic bags for the 72 hours following the initial earthquake. Hundreds of aftershocks had rumbled through the area and the Turks were in no rush to return to their homes. Tent cities had been built in the local soccer fields and were housing the majority of the cities inhabitants. From those tents, people could get updates, medical attention if necessary, and food. Team Rubicon conducted medical assessments in the two largest tent cities, looking to identify any untreated illness or injuries. The team was specifically looking for cold-weather injuries and bacterial/viral illness caused by the worsening weather and cramped conditions. After many hours in the camps Team Rubicon’s scout team identified the condition of camp patrons to be generally in good health. Team Rubicon members then assisted in the construction of the medical tents in the makeshift hospital.
Food and water were provided by the Red Crescent. They were distributed in the city center, tent camps, and at the hospitals. Red Crescent teams cooked large vats of hot soup and made bread for the city patrons and responders to eat. Much of the downtown of Ercis had been the shopping/dining district. With it destroyed, and with homes too dangerous to live in, all food and water needed to be brought in. There was ample supply, but while in the tent cities, we conducted cursory assessments of women and children looking for signs of malnutrition or dehydration. We saw no sign of either, but It appeared that the one glaring deficiency from the Red Crescent was the lack of toilet facilities. They had brought almost none, and now that people weren’t living in their houses, they couldn’t access their toilets. The camps stank as a result, and inquiries into the problem led nowhere. The European, American, and Japanese NGO’s quickly noticed this oversight, but could do nothing to solve the problem. This could become a problem in the coming weeks as disease could breed within the camps as a result of this oversight.
Josh Webster, Scout Team Leader