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Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria reveal important lessons for America

AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki
Syrian Civil Defense workers and security forces search through the wreckage of collapsed buildings in Aleppo, Syria, on Feb. 6, 2023. A powerful earthquake rocked wide swaths of Turkey and Syria, killing and injuring thousands of people.

The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria has now claimed over 22,000 lives. The true number of people lost may never be known. What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of people will be impacted for many years, as survivors mourn the loss of loved ones and lives are rebuilt. 

The primary earthquake registered 7.8 on the moment magnitude scale, which captures both the movement of the earth and the area of the earth impacted. A second tremor registered 7.5. As with most major earthquakes, aftershocks are expected to persist for weeks as the earth adjusts to its new equilibrium.

To put this into perspective, Northern California routinely has earthquake tremors measuring under 4.0 on this scale. Such tremors involve a vertical earth movement typically under one inch. This would be noticeable, but not dangerous. 

Once earthquakes registering 6.0 or more occur, they have the potential to cause significant damage. For example, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, commonly dubbed the “World Series Earthquake,” registered 6.8. By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake was estimated to register 7.9, on par with the recent Turkey and Syria earthquake.

So, what lessons can be learned from what occurred in Turkey and Syria over the past week? 

Natural disasters are more destructive than man-made disasters

Terrorist events and wars are heinous, leading to senseless loss of lives and property. Yet, the damage they inflict is rarely as extensive as the damage caused by nature. 

To illustrate this point, the attacks of September 11th resulted in around 3,000 casualties. The Ukraine war with Russia has had just over 7,000 lives lost to date. Both these numbers are dwarfed by the lives lost in Turkey and Syria, with the death toll over 22,000 and continuing to climb.

In the United States, the primary natural disasters are earthquakes on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South and Southeast, tornadoes in the South and Midwest, as well as flooding anywhere. What has significantly reduced damage and risk to people are the early warning systems in place to detect such pending events. 

Take for example Hurricane Ian, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the United States mainland. Although the damage to property was enormous, the number of lives lost was around 160. This is largely due to systems that permit people to take appropriate actions to protect themselves, as well as enhancement in building codes that harden infrastructures and make them more resilient

Location matters 

When a natural disaster strikes a sparsely populated area with little infrastructure, the damage will be minimal. Yet, when a densely populated urban area is hit, the cost in both lives and property skyrockets. Gaziantep, a city of over 2 million people, is bearing the brunt of the Turkey and Syria earthquakes.

Asking people to relocate away from high-risk areas is unrealistic, since the likelihood of major natural disaster events are typically quite small. Yet, once such an event unfolds, the question becomes whether one should invest in rebuilding or relocate those affected. 

Consider communities built in flood plains in the Midwest. The likelihood of a flood destroying such communities is low. Yet it does occur, and when the rains begin to fall, who should invest in protecting those affected? 

Everyone has the right to live anywhere they choose to live. They must also accept the risks associated with their choices, either with prudent investment in insurance coverage, or self-insuring against losses. The economics of such decisions is complex for all stakeholders. 

Natural disasters are the beginning, not the end of the problem 

As will be seen in Turkey and Syria, the damage caused by the earthquakes will make much of the area uninhabitable, with water, utilities, food, medical services and shelter decimated and unavailable. What may have taken minutes to occur will take years to restore, if ever. Indeed, more lives may be lost from such deficiencies than from the disaster itself. 

This means that investments in sturdy and robust infrastructures before disasters strike are critical to minimize secondary and tertiary lives lost following such events. 

Lessons learned 

As much as our elected officials are prone to argue about budgets, spending, gun safety and other contentious issues, when a natural disaster strikes, everyone comes together to help. That is the American way. 

Yet, once the crisis subsides, business as usual with petty squabbling returns. 

No one wishes a natural disaster on anyone. Yet, they are guaranteed to occur eventually, somewhere, with catastrophic consequences. Whether it be an earthquake in the Bay area, a hurricane in the Gulf Coast, or a tornado rumbling through the Panhandle of Texas, risks are ubiquitous. Preparation, planning and response can mitigate the very worst of such events. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist and operations researcher, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. 

This piece has been updated.

Tags Earthquake Emergency Preparedness Infrastructure Natural disaster Syria Turkey

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