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Surviving the Fifth Deadliest Earthquake of the Century

February 25, 2023

Video: IG @cuneytozdemir

On February 6th, 2023, at 4:17am, Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of over 45,000 people, with the unofficial death toll rising to over 100,000. My parents, sister, and dozens of close relatives were in the most impacted city, Antakya (in the province of Hatay) where half of the casualties occurred. These are my personal notes and learnings from what followed the fifth-deadliest earthquake of the 21st century and what my family and I experienced.

Sadly, the Turkish government's response to the disaster was woefully inadequate. In the first 2-3 days following the earthquake, they were unprepared, disorganized, and entirely absent from any rescue or aid efforts. Every government building in the affected city, including hospitals, police stations, search and rescue headquarters, and military housing, collapsed. The airport and highways were heavily damaged, leaving survivors without access to electricity, mobile reception, food, water, gas, and fuel during one of the coldest weeks of the year.

Timeline

61 minutes after the quake

I had just returned from a hike in San Diego and was settling in to watch The Last of Us when a friend sent me a text: "There's a major earthquake in South Eastern Turkey". "Thanks for letting me know, I'll check it out." I replied. At first, I felt relieved when I saw that the epicenter of the 7.8 earthquake was located 104 miles (169 km) away from where my parents lived and no news outlets were mentioning the Hatay province. However, my relief was short-lived as I began searching Twitter for updates. My heart sank as I saw hundreds of tweets from people trapped under rubble in Antakya pleading for help. In a panic, I started calling each family member one by one.

70 minutes after the quake

After countless attempts, my mom finally answered the phone. She was scared and in tears, with heavy breathing and the sound of pouring rain in the background. "We're okay, but it's bad, really bad here, son..." she told me. As she spoke, my anxiety intensified as she revealed that the seven-story building across from their apartment had completely collapsed, and their own one-year-old building had sustained heavy damage. Both of them had minor injuries. A piece of wall had fallen on my mom's face, while my dad, in another room, had been trapped under a large wardrobe as he slept. He managed to free himself, but not before sustaining several large bruises on his body (keep in mind that he's in his 70s). The bedroom door was stuck, but thankfully, there was a small aluminum ladder in the room that he used to break the door down and get out. My mom then asked me if I had been able to reach my sister and brother-in-law, who lived just three miles (5 km) away, as they were not answering their phones. I had to tell them that I hadn't been able to get in touch with either of them. The call disconnected shortly after, lasting just about a minute.

80 minutes after the quake

I managed to get through to my mom one more time, and we spoke for just two minutes. They were driving to my sister's house, and I was relieved to hear that they had managed to get their car out of the underground garage. However, there was still no news from my sister. As we spoke, my mom's voice was filled with panic, and she kept repeating "Oh my god, so many collapsed buildings...". And then, just like that, the call dropped again. It would be the last phone call I would be able to make with anyone in the city for the next 24 hours. The uncertainty and fear were suffocating, and I could only hope that my family was safe and that help would arrive soon.

88 minutes after the quake

I breathed a sigh of relief when I received a WhatsApp message from my dad saying that my sister had called and they were okay. Communication was still incredibly difficult. Regular phone calls and text messages were out of the question due to the intermittent mobile network access. The rare moments when they could get a signal were used to send and receive WhatsApp messages. WhatsApp had become the main communication channel for the entire city. However, it was mostly asynchronous, with messages arriving hours later in bulk, and their responses taking just as long to send. It was frustrating, but at least we had some way to stay in touch.

6 hours after the quake

I received a Whatsapp message from my sister. She informed me that they, along with other relatives, had gathered in an open area and planned to spend the night in their cars. However, the weather was bitterly cold, with temperatures near freezing. I was worried if they had enough food, water, blankets, or fuel to keep themselves warm. Despite my attempts to get in touch, none of my messages were being read.

9 hours after the quake

Then, to my horror, another powerful earthquake, measuring 7.5, struck the region about nine hours after the first one. I checked Twitter and learned that hundreds of additional buildings had collapsed. I was desperate to contact my family members but couldn't reach anyone. This time, my concern was at its peak. Although a whole daytime had passed since the first earthquake, there was still no sign of any help or rescue efforts in the city. Unable to sleep, I continued to check Twitter desperately for updates.

15 hours after the quake

There was still no news from my family in Antakya. The second earthquake had hit and I had no idea if they were okay. The lack of communication and information was driving me crazy. The Turkish government seemed to be ignoring what was happening in the region, leaving people to fend for themselves. I made the decision to go to Antakya, try to find my family and get them to safety. But things only seemed to get worse. Flights to Istanbul, where I needed to fly to get to Antakya, were being cancelled due to heavy snowstorms. I frantically searched for a flight, but none seemed to be available. The situation was getting more desperate by the minute.

24 hours after the quake

Still no help was provided by the government for the region. The Turkish army, the second largest in NATO after the US, was absent. Was it malice or incompetence? I didn’t know, but the helplessness and anger I experienced was beyond anything I had felt before. People were dying every minute, thousands were freezing to death under rubble. Mainstream media, controlled by the Turkish government, still did not cover Hatay.

I had been trying to contact my high school friends, but most of them were not replying. The ones who did respond had devastating news - two of them had lost their parents, and one of them had just rescued their newborn daughter from a collapsed hospital. It was hard to choose proper words to reply.

I was able to find a flight for early morning.

36 hours after the quake

I was flying to Istanbul with a layover in JFK when I received another message from my sister. She said that everyone was okay but the situation in the city was dire. 80% of the buildings were either collapsed or heavily damaged, and they were struggling to find fuel for their cars to leave the city. None of the gas stations were working. They were hoping to use the highway to leave the city, but the reports and photos on Twitter suggested that the road might not be passable. Another relative was on his way to Antakya with over 200 liters of fuel. There would be at least 5 cars full of relatives, mostly elderly with limited mobility. They had cars but no gas, and the drivers were too exhausted or unwell to drive for more than a few hours. We just wanted them to exit the city as soon as possible, as it might not have been possible for us to get in.

Roads were heavily damaged

58 hours after the quake

I had just landed in Istanbul, and my cousin picked me up from the airport. We needed more drivers to drive other families back to Istanbul. The trip to Hatay was a 12-hour drive covering 715 miles (1150km). Our plan was to get as close as possible to my family. We picked up two friends who agreed to come with us before heading south. The road was covered in snow, and the car we were driving had all-season tires, unlike the cars in Antakya which had summer tires. We decided to meet my family somewhere between Antakya and Adana around 2:30-3:30 am. Unfortunately, gas stations past Ankara had mile-long lines of semis and trucks, which made the situation a logistical nightmare. My family and relatives managed to receive the gas, and they were ready to leave the city. We agreed to meet at a factory owned by a friend near Ceyhan, where they could warm up, have soup, and rest for a few hours. Even though their trip in normal times would have taken less than two hours, Twitter reports suggested a 14-hour traffic. Luckily, my brother-in-law was familiar with the villages around the highway due to his hobby of motorcycling. They drove through the darkness and rubble for 7 hours and finally made it to the meeting point. As we got closer, we encountered non-government help convoys blocking the roads to Antakya. Due to it's geography, there's a single entry/exit point to the city.

70 hours after the quake

We arrived at the meeting point. My heart raced as I hugged my family tightly, tears streaming down my face. I was finally reunited with them after all the chaos and devastation. But the joyous moment was short-lived as we faced yet another obstacle. My brother-in-law was able to get someone to bring snow tires to the meeting location for three of the vehicles. They didn’t have suitable tires for my dad’s car. The snow-covered roads to Istanbul were treacherous. We weighed our options, knowing that we're still in the earthquake region and still experiencing aftershocks every few minutes. The fear of being trapped under rubble again was too much to bear and we had no desire to spend more time there.

74 hours after the quake

Since I was going to be the one driving my dad's car, I was okay taking the risk of driving with summer tires. The bigger concern for me was my lack of sleep for two days, but we had no other option. We started making our journey back with 4 other cars now.

87 hours after the quake

We arrived in Istanbul after a grueling 13-hour drive. The last 3 hours were especially tough because of the bad traction and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. We were fortunate enough to have an apartment in Istanbul, which would be their new home for the foreseeable future as my hometown had been completely destroyed.

4 days after the quake

The first few days in Istanbul were mentally challenging. It was the first time my family could communicate with others. We were on the phone non-stop, calling every 10-15 minutes to make sure our friends and family were okay. Sadly, every family in Antakya suffered losses. My parents lost lifelong friends, cousins, neighbors, and colleagues. We received non-stop phone calls with bad news for days. They were questioning the point of surviving with nothing. Worrying about future is a common feeling, but losing your past at this scale is a feeling experienced by very few.

At the early morning of the earthquake, my parents left their apartment sometime around 4:45am in complete darkness with injuries. The only items they had with them were their wallets and jackets. Having nothing else, we need to build their life from nothing. Starting with very basics. Shoes, socks, underwear, and clothing. The initial government assessment of their building was "heavily damaged", meaning that the building will be demolished and cannot be entered. My dad's office building was also collapsed.

14 days after the quake

I decided to go back to Antakya with my dad for a few days to help with some tasks. We knew that rebuilding the city would take years and that it would be uninhabitable for at least the next six months. Although there was still no water or gas in the city, we needed to make one last visit for closure.

As we entered Antakya around 9 pm and looked at the city skyline and lights across the city, my dad pointed out that there was finally power in the city. For the first time in the last two weeks, I saw a glimpse of hope on his face. Suddenly, as we were staring at the panoramic view of the city from a higher elevation, green and blue lights flashed across the sky. One by one, power lines and substations flashed with bright lights. Then, complete darkness followed. We parked the car on the emergency lane with confusion. I opened Twitter to understand what had just happened when a friend who was expecting us in the city called. He said that another major earthquake had just hit and advised us not to enter the city as more buildings had collapsed. The car started shaking as we were talking. It was another aftershock. Traffic was already building up as there were accidents due to the shake. Reports confirmed 6.4 and 5.8 earthquakes. We made a u-turn and drove back for half-an-hour to find an open space to park and spend the night. This time, we were prepared with a full tank of gas, blankets, food, and water. With the early morning light, we agreed that going back to Antakya was too risky due to the non-stop aftershocks. So, we drove back to Istanbul, another 12-hour drive.

Lessons and learnings

  • Your community will be the single most important factor in defining your success for survival and reaching safety. Adopting a "lone wolf" mentality would be disastrous in this scenario. There will be a plethora of tasks to be done at all times. In this case, neighborhoods and families pooled together their resources and delegated tasks such as rescuing family and friends from rubble, extracting people from apartments with stuck external doors or damaged staircases, finding water, bread, fuel, cooking food, making and keeping fires, providing security, and leaving the area to find communication.
  • Plan a meeting point with your friends and family and assume that there will be no means of communication for multiple days. My parents spent hours searching for my sister, and vice versa, as they circled around each other.
  • If you own multiple cars, keep one outside of your home or building garage. Many building garages and first floors collapsed, destroying all the cars parked under them. Similarly, many cars parked outside were damaged due to collapsed buildings. Having cars in different locations will increase your chances of having one undamaged. Your car will serve as your shelter and escape vehicle. Make sure that at least one car is non-electric as there will be multiple days/weeks of no power to charge them. Ideally, own an all-wheel-drive (AWD) with high clearance.
  • Know your escape route(s) well. A 2-hour exit route became 14-hour due to damaged roads and backed-up traffic. My family was able to cut this time in half by knowing the villages in the area well.
  • Have a satellite messenger if you can afford the cost. In Antakya, all cell towers were on top of buildings that collapsed altogether. As an avid hiker, I owned a Garmin InReach satellite messenger for many years. If someone in the family had one, we could have had a consistent and relatively reliable means of communication. For this reason alone, I'm really excited about AST Space Mobile, a space-based cellular broadband network that will allow existing smartphones to have a high-speed data connection via low-orbit satellites.
  • Learn first aid because there won't be any medical help for multiple days.
  • Always keep a full tank of gas, and have enough cash on hand (credit and debit cards may not work for weeks).
  • Have a disaster kit at home and in your car. If you live in a detached house, bury a kit in your backyard so that you can focus on leaving the house instead of trying to retrieve the kit. Store enough food and water for multiple weeks, replacing them periodically. Have a water filtration device and water purification tablets, and keep your phone charged at all times, especially when sleeping. Include an AM/FM radio in your disaster kit, as it could be the sole source of information available, just as it was for my family.
  • If you want to store cash, gold, and other valuables somewhere, use bank safes instead of keeping them at home. Do not rely on a single bank, and make sure that at least one bank is outside your city and on your way to your safe city. Choose bank branches based on their chance of surviving different types of disasters.
  • Securely attach all furniture to walls. Doors may become stuck, so have a lever or other tool to break them down.
  • Be in good physical shape. My family had to walk and run a lot as many parts of the city were inaccessible due to collapsed buildings blocking the roads. You may need to carry loved ones, help with rescue efforts, carry supplies, or move furniture.
  • Consider owning a gun and learning how to use it properly. I know this is controversial, but my stance on gun ownership has changed. When resources become extremely scarce, humans will fight. This is a universal truth and human nature. Looting, theft, murder, and armed robberies have occurred in my hometown. My friends armed themselves and took turns to protect their limited supplies, homes, and businesses.
  • There were no major threats of a tsunami in the region, but it could be a possibility in your area, particularly in the West Coast of the US and Canada. It's crucial to have a mechanism in place to receive tsunami alerts and identify a path to high ground as far inland as possible.
  • Do not assume that developed countries will have different outcomes. Your government will fail to respond. Have a plan.

My sister's cat My sister's cat Teddy was a part of our journey from the start. He finally found some peace four days after the earthquake.

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