Written by Onur Anamur, edited by Tommaso Filippini
Disaster response is often a mess. Consider an integrated international system of disaster response.
The Disaster in Turkey
The twin earthquakes of February 6th in Turkey have been catastrophic. The official death toll is over 50,000. (Al Jazeera 2023) Ancient cities lie in ruins. Engineers and academics had long pointed out the risks of shoddy construction. Yet, in a booming economy, these doomsayers went unheeded. Whilst society acknowledged that the ivory tower line on how buildings should, formally and ideally, be built was true, many felt that out in the real world—and without tenure—sometimes we compromise and make recourse to practicalities. Hence much respect was officially paid to erudite opinions, which were duly reflected in the building codes. Those codes, however, were too often honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Only a few villages graced with intransigent muhtars, village mayors, dogmatically refusing to bend code remained unscathed. A few months ago, President Erdogan commenting on the legal immunities granted to those who had broken code, said “We’ve solved the problems of many of our citizens.” It barely ruffled a feather then. Turkey took its building codes after the 1999 earthquake much like people take New Year’s Resolutions: earnestly but laxly. That this has been the attitude of a society of 84 million on such a grave thing as earthquakes may seem incomprehensible. Alas, such failures are all-too-common examples of general human, and particularly Turkish, follies (Berlinski, 2011). Regarding the latter, to avoid digressing, suffice it to say that it has sociological causes, particularly vis-à-vis the character and position of intelligentsia in Turkey.
It turned out ivory towers were less dangerous than those of substandard concrete. New and stolid roads were expunged from the ground, resembling dominos, restricting access for days, while affected areas were in a post-apocalyptic state: shops closed and without water and gas, even if one’s building still stood. Thirst and hunger became not fatal, but real problems. This was in a country where shops are open until ten at night and hydroelectric cuts in cities have been virtually unheard of over the last decade. In a less developed area, one may suppose people have a decent stock of food and water, but this did not apply in Turkey, where infrastructure is good and thus heavily relied upon.
A few days after the earthquake, the government admitted to shortcomings but defended itself, citing the impossibility of preparing for earthquakes of such magnitude. They were indeed an event of the century, reaching 7.8 and 7.7 on the Richter scale, damaging ancient mosques and churches whose inordinately thick walls had lasted the ages. Yet the government line remains deeply problematic. Those shortcomings—beside the fundamental neglect of construction regulation over the longue durée—were still horrendous. The most conspicuous lacks were quite basic: too few tents and no military presence in the crucial first few days.
Granted: enough tents meant literally millions, but this retort is irrational. Tents are cheap and easy to make and store. Prudence would have required prior, adequate distribution of tents across all areas close enough to a fault.
With broken roads and busy officials, tents were delayed in getting through. Also, the Red Crescent sold 2500 tents to a charity. (Sözcü, 2023) Since responses to national tragedies greatly influence opinions and election results, it is hard to attribute this scandal to quaestuary meanness. What sane body would knowingly sell tents during a national catastrophe? Whatever the financial benefit, even if pocketed, is surely outweighed by the electoral harm. Likewise, functionaries, however vile or debased, are less likely to dare similar undertakings at such an acute time, for fear of wrathful chastisement by their masters.
The likeliest culprits, then, were the constriction of the channels of communication and the absence of the delegation of authority. One imagines that authorities may have been overwhelmed with saving people from the rubble in those first few days, omitting to issue orders for tents—housing people naturally coming second to rescuing them. Yet the ordinary procedure for selling tents to charities remained in place, and officials simply followed it.
The military’s absence is harder to understand. Some suspect a government grudge after the attempted coup. Yet, for a rational actor, this does not make much sense: the government’s incentive to make a good showing and keep the death toll down trumps that of snubbing an institution it dislikes—and whether the military indeed would make good showing remains an open question. If it did, things could easily be spun to justify the post-coup purges; if not, then that would have helped to further discredit the military, thus justifying the purges differently.
The closest we have to an answer—as ever so often—is rumour, related by a respectable and independent Turkish news website, T24, but admitted by it as such: the President and Vice-President wanted to mobilise the military, but the Interior Minister dissuaded them, saying that he and AFAD, the civilian emergency response force, could manage (Şardan, 2023). If true, it means that the military was not mobilised since it was thought that the job could be carried out just as well without them by the civilian emergency response which the government favoured.
One might argue against this. The herculean character of the challenge was clear two minutes after the earthquake. A cynic may remark that the government, knowing people would tolerate some degree of inadequacy, was not particularly worried about the quality of its own performance. Nevertheless, the explanation remains believable. Whatever the integrity of the authorities, the decision to not call in the military is a common sort of miscalculation in politics and human behaviour: misplaced optimism. Consider the invasion of Ukraine. If such follies can happen, underestimating the disaster response capabilities of one’s very own organisation is but the equivalent of forgetting to turn off the light.
Think Turkey is Bad? Compare it to Hurricane Katrina
Turkey earned the praise of Rory Stewart—a former British minister and proconsul-at-large and no fan of the Turkish government. On The Rest is Politics podcast, he remarked, of his meeting with a Turkish governor, that he found the governor’s aptitude and gung-ho attitude impressive, given the enormity of the task. Foreign commentators, at least after the initial stage, have recognized Turkey’s feats as very considerable. In absolute terms, it was bad but by general comparison it has nonetheless done well.
Consider Hurricane Katrina. We always knew New Orleans’ susceptibility to floods, and the city did have levees to stop most storms—Katrina was just too large. One may say–albeit in retrospect–that the levees should have been even bigger; they are cheap to maintain and cheap in per unit terms.
New Orleans’ failure in infrastructure was that there was nothing but the levees to protect it, meanwhile its people could not readily decamp elsewhere. This was despite it being obvious that even heavy rainfall could cause serious damage. It was equally obvious in this poor city, where the average yearly income was about $30,000–according to the US Census of 2000–that many individuals would be unable to cope. (Wolf, 2006). The most vulnerable areas were low-income and Black. People from these neighbourhoods simply lacked the money to stay in hotels upstate for weeks. Yet we are so very used to terrible systemic variation by race and wealth across the board that it still shocks one less than what happened in Turkey. And at least in New Orleans, generally even the humblest abode was up to code.
Yet the real problem was the conduct of the authorities. US officials received warnings of the storm ten days beforehand. However, the evacuation order came in only hours before the storm hit. On the eve of the storm, President Bush was on vacation in California, and when the storm hit, he was attending a publicised VJ-Day commemoration. Stricken Turks were sheltered in tent cities—despite the problem in getting tents—and fed hot meals for weeks. A great number of New Orleans residents were in the stadium with three days’ worth of sandwiches and water.
Maybe worst was the confusing jungle of authorities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was responsible for positioning supplies before and after the storm as well as search-and-rescue, assisting debris removal, and providing shelters. Yet state and municipal authorities were those responsible for immediate emergency response, evacuation, and maintaining order. This was an unconducive division of labour: discrete tasks being carried out by the same body and cohesive tasks, like search-and-rescue and immediate emergency response, by different bodies—weighing authorities down. Scandal was here too: before the storm, trained firefighters from throughout the US gallantly volunteered. Yet their arrival was delayed because they were put through extra training, including information about sexual harassment and FEMA’s history (Bluestein, 2005).
This failure happened despite the storm’s eastward change of course at the eleventh hour, the city itself no longer being point zero. The US’s resources dwarf Turkey’s. Earthquakes strike suddenly whereas storms are visible and slower to strike.
Alas, humanity’s failures are not limited to these two events. It might be that humans are just bad at disaster management. Professor Ferguson writes in Doom that since disasters follow power distributions rather than linear ones, people find it hard to think rationally about them; there is no average earthquake, many small ones and a few big deadly ones. Those who can think about them can seldom describe them precisely—when and where they will be—and thus are ignored. Politics seemingly amplifies the ills of human folly. He writes of “the idea that the mortality caused by a deadly pathogen is partly a reflection of the social and political order which it attacks. (Ferguson, 2021, p. 2)”, and “We know politicians seldom seek out expert knowledge without some ulterior motive”(Ferguson,2021, p. 6).
Ferguson too notes the self-evident systemic disadvantage of democracies. Investing in disaster prevention means diverting resources from more present and popular concerns. Moreover, it is not past governments which prepared for disasters but incumbent governments which get the credit for dealing with them. The former is all-too-often remembered only in passing and what good is recognition to a government which is no more? (Authoritarianism brings its own disadvantages.) Rory Stewart also remarked on the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 response that he found all-too-often that such failures came not from technical inabilities but from the pitfalls of human psychology.
Adequate disaster prevention, then, resembles dieting. One often keeps to one’s diet through interpersonal commitments and obligations, like scheduling runs with friends. It follows that we may do the same here, except that the interpersonal commitments and obligations here are also of a legal and political character, being between legal persons–states. Indeed, were one’s diet a matter of international law, rather than merely cancelling an appointment with a friend, one might observe it more zealously.
If people are intrinsically bad at dealing with disasters, ‘two heads are better than one’ does not hold. Consider then an international system of disaster management, commitment to which is diplomatically prescribed, liberating it from the daily vagaries of domestic politics. Let it have holistic and well-defined responsibilities; clear lines of coordination and communication; all teams integrated into an international system of support and supply, removing the deathly complications of ad-hoc coordination; collectively provisioning vulnerable areas beforehand; the teams up to the highest international standards and those standards common to all. Why not have a system of disaster prevention and response as we have NATO for defence?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation already has the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) (NATO, 2021), functioning as “a clearing-house system for coordinating requests for and offers of assistance”. Military and disaster response both require organisation, know-how, interoperability and coordination, and both have public safety as their goal. Why not expand this bureau into an organisation like mentioned above? (Speranza, 2020) Also, international collegiality is greatly constricted to academia and white-collar professions. Letting nurses, construction workers and local ladder manufacturers etc. associate, as under an integrated disaster response system, would be a step—if minor—advancing the spirit of cooperation, especially when collegial encounters are criticised as the luxuriating of higher classes—think Davos.
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