After Turkey Tragedy, Experts Offer Earthquake Survival Tips
Women hug each other near a collapsed building on Feb. 7, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey, a day after 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Gaziantep, Turkey (Burak Kara/Getty Images)

After Turkey Tragedy, Experts Offer Earthquake Survival Tips

Preparedness is key, especially in and around the Middle East, which is crisscrossed with fault lines

With the news that thousands of people were killed in Turkey and Syria as a result of Monday’s deadly earthquake and the subsequent aftershocks, many are now more concerned than ever about what to do when such a disaster strikes.

This kind of mass casualty event will leave any country challenged and emergency services struggling to help the large number of victims, often under extreme circumstances. And it is likely that there will be more such tragedies in and around the Middle East, which is crisscrossed with fault lines.

The Media Line asked experts to share their pointers on how to cope with such a deadly event and explain why preparedness is key.

“There are simply not enough resources in such cases,” according to Professor Bruria Adini, head of the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Medicine in the School of Public Health, Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. “This turns the public into the first responders.”

Such events catch everyone by surprise.

“You can never really be ready for such a moment and you cannot trust your instincts; sometimes the thing you need to do is go against them,” said Col. (res.) Dr. Efraim Laor, disaster manager and co-founder of AFRAN – National Research Institute for Disaster Reduction.


Here’s what to do before an earthquake:

Sometimes things are easier said than done. People can be prepared but, when disaster strikes, circumstances change rapidly and the human response is not always the desired one. There are basic things people can have ready, however.

“The real golden hour is not the one after the disaster, but the one before, when we can prepare as best as possible,” said Adini. “You should have a stock of food for a few days. Take a deep breath and remember, the authorities will not be able to reach the majority of those in need.”

According to Adini, the public needs to be given tools in order to conduct the basic actions required for what she calls “a simple search and rescue operation.” In Israel, 10th graders participate in a program conducted by the Defense Ministry and the military’s Home Front Command aimed at training them to do just that.

They are taught how to move rocks and boulders by applying specific techniques and using equipment that is usually handy, such as a car jack, tree branches, and other available objects. The belief is that the more first responders there are in a disaster area, the more survivors there will be.

“In addition to food, water, batteries, personal documents, and money, one of the most important things people forget is to always have their prescription medications on them, like they carry their phone,” said Laor. “You should always carry medicine with you to last for at least 10 days. Medication distribution is impossible when disaster strikes and you never know where you will be trapped.”

Laor implores people in homes and offices to affix nonstructural elements such as shelves, computers, and light fixtures so that they don’t fly and cause damage during a quake.


Here’s what to do when an earthquake strikes:

In Israel, where experts believe a large earthquake will strike in the coming years, there is concern that the country is not prepared for such an event. Antiquated buildings and weak infrastructure could lead to similar scenes as those playing out now in Turkey with a similarly alarming death toll.

“If you are in a one- or two-story building and you can, get out and try to get away from other buildings,” advises Professor Limor Aharonson-Daniel, head of PREPARED Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “In tall buildings, where there are bomb shelters, that would be the safest choice.”

Since the 1990s, new houses and apartments in Israel are required to be built with a bomb shelter in them. Fortified with armed concrete, these rooms are considered safe. Though it is unclear whether an apartment bomb shelter would survive a multistory building collapse, they still present one of the safest options.

“If you can get out, that is the best option,” said Adini. “Most of the casualties and injuries are not from the quake itself, but from the collapse of buildings afterward.”

In the past, the prevailing advice was to get under a table or desk or stand under a doorpost. Today, construction inside apartments and offices uses softer materials which provide less protection in such cases as an earthquake.

“In a big city, where buildings are crowded, head to the most open space, with the least open exposed electricity wires and cranes,” said Laor. “Often buildings have a delayed collapse and the safest place is the parking lot of such buildings that are stronger than the building itself and can sustain the collapse.”


If you are stuck under the rubble:

As rescue workers race against time to find survivors in Turkey, experts agree that the first 72 hours are critical. After that, the chance of finding survivors is drastically reduced.

Cellphones, and smartphones, have changed the way we communicate during regular times. They have also changed our behavior during times of crisis.

“One should try and transmit a distress signal, send their location to someone or to emergency services,” said Aharonson-Daniel. She says sending out a regular SMS also could help locate a person, even once their battery has died.

The caveat is that often disasters will damage network infrastructure. In addition, people’s instinct to immediately contact loved ones or emergency service often causes networks to crash due to overuse.

According to Aharonson-Daniel, special emergency guidelines for deaf people are needed. They will often not be able to shout for help, cannot hear the sounds and cues around them. The advice for them is also good for people who can hear.

“People should knock on whatever is next to them and try to attract attention,” said Adini.

“This should preferably be done in a uniform rhythm,” Aharonson-Daniel added, so that people can recognize it is a deliberate attempt to be recognized.

Rescue workers in Turkey currently are operating under difficult conditions. In addition to powerful aftershocks and massive amounts of rubble, the harsh winter is further exacerbating their efforts. The cold is also a threat to the survivors.

In cases where it is possible, lighting a fire could keep survivors of an earthquake warm. It can also help in signaling one’s location to first responders.

“Often lighting a fire is not possible, but to keep warm people should stay close to each other and try to cover up with whatever they can find, even plastic bags,” said Aharonson-Daniel.

“Look for the light, and crawl toward it,” Adini suggests.

Access to clean water also is critical. If it is a hot summer, dehydration could come quickly. Infections from wastewater have caused pandemics to break out in disaster areas in the past.


Fight or flight – maintaining mental well-being

In the age of smartphones equipped with cameras, the videos taken by people stuck under the rubble in Turkey are harrowing. People can be seen or heard calling from beneath piles of concrete, talking to loved ones, and begging for assistance.

In those moments, survivors are less concerned with the amount of battery power that remains on their phones.

“The human instinct is to hear a voice of a loved one, which gives comfort,” said Aharonson-Daniel. “People want to feel that someone knows where they are. These things also give strength, and emotional strength is a critical element of survival. These things give people motivation to make the effort to survive and not lose hope.”

“Hope is usually the only motivator in keeping people alive,” said Raphael Poch, a member of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit at United Hatzalah.

But people may lose their cool under such dire circumstances.

“There are breathing exercises that should be taught ahead of time,” he said. “These are very simple exercises that are conducted in a regular rhythm and also use guided imagery.”

“Take deep breaths and exhale slowly, this helps calm the body,” said Poch. “An acute stress reaction can be as debilitating as any urgent medical condition.”

If someone is in a panic, there are also ways to work through it, however.

“This is not the time for deep psychological therapy,” said Adini. “It is better to talk about the actions we are taking in the present. Ask very concrete questions, mobilize people to action. That is the best way to cope.”

In Israel, a recent televised campaign by the Health Ministry tried to familiarize citizens with the basic steps to take to help someone who has been traumatized. Used mainly to cope with rocket or terror attacks, the steps suggested also could be used for natural disasters. There are four main steps, all of which encourage simple and efficient actions that divert someone’s attention from their trauma.

“Don’t tell someone in a panic what to do,” Poch explained. “Work with them to answer their most immediate needs.”

“Help each other focus on things they can do, even little things, to help improve their situation. You do not need to be an expert psychotrauma responder to do,” he added, emphasizing the importance of seeking out people who can be with you, even under the rubble.

The challenge is to remember all of this advice when disaster strikes and until trained first responders arrive at the scene.

“At this point, humans go into survival mode and their mental capacity is decreased. From that moment on, a person may look the same, but they operate in a completely different matter,” said Laor.

In the dark hours that Turkey and Syria are now facing, humanitarian assistance is flowing in from around the world, with the hopes of saving as many people as possible.

“The only remedy in a catastrophe of this size are acts of human love and kindness,” said Poch.

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