Turkish Anger Turns to Erdogan Over Quake Delays, Weak Buildings

(Bloomberg) --

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing mounting criticism from earthquake survivors and opposition parties over the country’s poor construction record and what they say has been an inadequate response to one of its worst natural disasters.

With the national death toll from Monday’s two massive tremors passing 18,500, critics say the government’s delay in sending cranes and other heavy machinery to lift slabs of concrete missed a critical window of opportunity to save people. Experts fear tens of thousands more people are buried under the rubble, meaning the number of fatalities is likely to keep rising.

Erdogan has conceded there were difficulties in dispatching urgent aid amid harsh winter conditions to all 10 affected provinces, though said Wednesday all available means to help had been mobilized. Yet accusations date back further, with claims the government failed to enforce quality rules during a construction boom that’s also contributing to the number of fatalities.

The criticism comes as Erdogan prepares for national elections in May, where he is seeking to extend his record two-decade rule — one marked by a surge in building hailed by the president as a key driver of economic growth. The capacity to rescue people and deliver aid to the disaster zone has swiftly become a top issue ahead of the vote, which Erdogan is working toward holding on schedule.

Read More: Erdogan Wants Elections in May Despite Fallout of Earthquake

“They came too late, my nephew had just a broken leg but could not withstand as he waited for help in vain,” an elderly man told a live Fox TV broadcast from one of the worst-hit cities of Kahramanmaras, a stronghold of support for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party.

“Those running this country should be more careful and attentive,” he said, hours after Erdogan visited a hastily erected tented compound for those displaced. “We know how they’re ruling, they should turn a little to citizens and serve the people.”

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The head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said shoddy construction contributed to the high casualty toll and that Turkey, a country prone to earthquakes, had not learned lessons from the past. He accused the government of squandering taxpayers’ money earmarked for preparing for such disasters.

Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD listed deficiencies in personnel dispatch and quake-preparedness in a December 2022 internal report seen by Bloomberg, including shortcomings on coordinating emergency service staff.

AFAD was not immediately available for comment.

Erdogan on Friday said first-responder civil servants were injured in the quakes and this played a role in the delayed response.

Access to Twitter in Turkey was temporarily restricted after Kilicdaroglu’s comments, though the telecom watchdog — which has the power to narrow bandwidth — hasn’t said it shut down access.

Poor Quality

Despite tough safety codes imposed after earthquakes killed more than 18,000 people near Istanbul in 1999, the poor quality of construction and enforcement has remained an issue. Critics have accused builders of sacrificing safety in favor of speed and cost, saying many damaged buildings lacked steel support rods and sufficient concrete.

A “reason for such devastation is lack of oversight, as the construction process turned into a tool of collecting capital,” Tezcan Karakus Candan, the head of the Ankara branch office of the Chamber of Architects, said Thursday. “Some buildings have been divided into two which means the material is poor.”

The Turkish government has confirmed the collapse of 6,444 buildings out of more than 11,000 reported damaged. Each passing day is dramatically decreasing the chances of survival for people under the rubble, according to Ovgun Ahmet Ercan, a professor of geophysics at Istanbul Technical University.

“We are facing an extraordinary disaster,” he said. “Even if the inspections were done well, the destruction would not have been much less.”

Construction firms have been known to remove supporting columns from some shops and parking lots, and making changes in bearing walls, building doors and windows.

This practice can “cause buildings to collapse in earthquakes,” said Burak Kurtman, a civil engineer at Ankara-based engineering services firm Yuksel Proje.

“The main problem of this chaos today is this one-man rule,’ said Meral Aksener, the chairwoman of the opposition Iyi Party, alleging an institutional collapse in the country after Erdogan turned the president’s office into nexus of executive power.

--With assistance from Firat Kozok and Tugce Ozsoy.

(Updates with second, eighth through tenth paragraphs.)

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