Death toll from Turkey and Syria earthquakes nears 8,000

The death toll from earthquakes in Turkey and Syria climbed to almost 8,000 with tens of thousands injured, according to authorities, as a frantic rescue effort stretched into a third day following one of the region’s worst disasters in decades.

Rescue teams worked through the night to pull survivors from the rubble in towns and cities across southern Turkey and northern Syria, which were rocked by two powerful quakes and a series of aftershocks on Monday. Local television stations and newspapers showed harrowing scenes of disaster victims that underscored the mounting toll across the region.

Turkey’s death toll reached 5,894 on Wednesday, with authorities reporting that 34,810 people had been injured. In Syria, more than 2,000 people have died, according to reports from the government and civil defence officials in the rebel-controlled north-west.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the affected areas, giving the government sweeping powers to address the crisis. Erdoğan was set on Wednesday to visit the affected region, according to state media.

More than 10,000 people are involved in rescue operations, but freezing weather conditions, snow and poor infrastructure have made it challenging to transport heavy machinery, personnel and aid.

“The scale of the disaster is catastrophic,” said Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the US-based International Rescue Committee, adding that the quakes and aftershocks had “damaged roads, border crossings and critical infrastructure, severely hampering aid efforts”.

Countries including the US, UK, India and China have sent rescue teams to Turkey to assist local response efforts, while domestic and international aid agencies are providing personnel and materials. The UN on Tuesday announced $25mn of funds to support relief efforts.

“As the people in the region deal with the devastating consequences of this tragedy, we want to tell them that they are not alone,” said Martin Griffiths, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator.

Experts said the low quality of construction and lack of earthquake resilience in the region contributed to the damage. Thousands of structures collapsed after the 7.8 magnitude quake on Monday — one of the worst natural disasters in the history of modern Turkey, and which was followed hours later by a second, 7.5 magnitude tremor.

“This is really dangerous construction and that is a significant feature of this,” said Caroline McMullan, a London-based director at risk management firm Verisk. “There will be a lot of focus in the aftermath on that building design quality.”

Verisk estimated the global insurance industry could face billions of euros in losses from the disaster. Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer at Moody’s RMS, another risk modelling provider, estimated that Turkey’s public-private earthquake insurance scheme could suffer a hit of up to $1bn, which would be shared with international reinsurers.

Big European insurers Allianz and Axa, which have Turkish subsidiaries, said it was too early to estimate losses, a message echoed by reinsurer Munich Re, one of Europe’s biggest reinsurers.

A spokesperson for Allianz said the group’s earthquake risks were “generally well reinsured”.

The expected economic toll has already prompted tumult in Turkey’s stock market, with the benchmark Bist 100 index sliding 8.6 per cent on Tuesday, twice tripping “circuit breakers” designed to ease panic selling. Tuesday’s slide was the market’s steepest in almost two years and left it down 18 per cent in 2023.

Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi in Ankara

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