I recently had the opportunity to participate in delivering our assistance to Turkey after a 7.3 earthquake struck Van and several towns in eastern Turkey. I went with a team from several sections of the U.S. Embassy to help coordinate the arrival of five flights carrying relief supplies donated by the U.S. military.
I served in the embassy in Ankara during the 1999 earthquake, and knew how devastating these can be in Turkey, despite best efforts to prepare for them. We had been working with the Turkish government for several days before our aid arrived, and I knew they were mounting an impressive effort to respond. The United States joined over 20 other nations, including Armenia, Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, in providing assistance. The Turkish Red Crescent and other Turkish aid organizations received $300,000 in U.S. humanitarian assistance funds, plus the U.S. Department of Defense flew in more than 2,000 cots, over a 1,000 blankets, and over 500 tents to help comfort victims as they face dropping temperatures. The scale of the effort was brought home to me, however, as soon as I arrived at the Ankara Airport on the way to Erzurum. It seemed that half the passengers on flights to Van, the center of the affected zone, were disaster response teams from all over central Anatolia, dressed in their uniforms ready to roll off the plane as soon as it arrived. They seemed calm and confident, and their desire to help was clear.
Arriving at Erzurum, which is the center of delivery of air shipments for the region, was equally impressive. The airport is small, but very efficient. Immediately upon arrival, we went to the crisis coordination center, and found a group of officials from the governor's office, the Prime Minister's office, NGOs, and the Turkish Red Crescent. There was a steady stream of people coming in and out of the room, calmly going about their business, making sure relief supplies were unloaded and on their way as soon as possible. The core crisis center team had been working round the clock for days. Despite being tired, they were unfailingly polite and professional.
They escorted us to the tarmac to see the unloading of the U.S. plane. That operation was also a sight to behold. The airport and the governor's office had coordinated with the Turkish Red Crescent and local companies. They had assembled a fleet of forklifts from several agencies, and carefully choreographed the arrival of trucks to receive goods from arriving planes. Watching the arrival of the U.S. military planes was impressive. The crews were very polite and professional. It was amazing to watch the first crew show the eager Turkish forklift drivers how best to unload the pallets of U.S. goods. Each country's planes arrive with slightly different needs in terms of offloading. The Turks cheerfully adapted as necessary. After a few tries, the hardy Turkish forklift drivers got the routine down of unloading our planes, helped on by our aircrews.
Over the course of several nights, I watched this operation repeated a dozen times, with both our planes and flights from other countries. The Turkish organization and coordination of the unloading and distribution was impressive. Equally impressive was seeing the mini-UN of planes that arrived from all over the world, including the United States, UAE, Georgia, Sweden, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and others.
We spent a lot of time talking to the Red Crescent Coordinators as well. Their operation was similarly impressive. They have an excellent coordination network set up across the country, with depots of supplies in ten areas to accelerate response times. The Erzurum depot had supplied both the Van and the Hatay earthquake responses while we were there. They work closely with the Prime Minister's Disaster Response Coordination Office and local government offices. Talking to their local staff, I was impressed by their experience and dedication, as a number have been working for Kizilay for more than a decade. As in this case, their teams have a bag packed at all times, and are ready to deploy within two hours.
Throughout all of this, we were very aware of the magnitude of the event. Our thoughts and prayers were with the families of those who perished, and were injured. The fact that more than 200 were rescued from the October 23 earthquake is a testament to the skill and professionalism of the Turkish aid agencies in responding. I am pleased that the United States was able to be part of the effort to help Turkey recover from these earthquakes.