Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) takes a helicopter tour of the Hatay province with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (left), Feb. 19. Photo by Chuck Kennedy
By the U.S. Consulate in Adana
At 4:17 and 4:32 a.m. on Feb. 6, two earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude tore through Consulate Adana’s district. People across southeastern Turkey, including post’s U.S. and locally employed (LE) staff, ran from their beds into cold, dark streets. As dawn broke, photos on social media showed a shattered landscape. Buildings had caved and roads buckled across an area the size of Germany. After a third, 7.5 tremor later in the day, tens of thousands of apartment towers collapsed with an awful roar. Survivors sheltered from freezing rain in their cars and gathered at underpass campfires. More than 11 million people were directly affected. With local authorities instructing residents not to re-enter damaged apartments, most of Consulate Adana’s 150 LE staff members were left temporarily homeless. Remarkably, none of post’s staff were killed, but more than 50,000 people, including 18 U.S. citizens, died in what has since been described as the worst natural disaster in Turkish history. Almost all LE staff lost relatives—some up to a dozen, as well as friends and neighbors. Amidst their shock and grief, staff from Consulate Adana were among the first responders.
The consulate building, a former newspaper printing facility set in a citrus orchard surrounded by blast walls, stood. Post had seven Foreign Service officers and specialists, four USAID personnel responsible for Syria assistance, and an eight-person Marine Security Guard (MSG) detachment on the ground. As soon as the compound was assessed for damage, the team laid out cots and blankets in the conference room, put up tents on the grass, and invited local staff and their family members to shelter inside. Other local staff slept in their cars, keeping watch over damaged homes. Community liaison offices in Ankara and Istanbul sent motor pool vans packed with sleeping bags, flashlights, and clean clothes, which the MSG detachment distributed to consulate staff in the parking lot. As the ground shifted underfoot and concrete swayed overhead—there were more than 20,000 aftershocks in February and March—many staff were desperate to get their families out of harm’s way. A stream of shuttles started carrying people over the mountains to safety. The Department of State quickly approved emergency humanitarian payments for LE staff from the Foreign Service National Emergency Relief Fund, ensuring they had money to set up makeshift households.
Countless people were trapped in collapsed buildings. Within hours, USAID stood up a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). This included an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team of 170 experts from the Los Angeles, Calif. and Fairfax, Va. fire departments, 10 canine units, and a team of USAID staff dedicated to coordinating the U.S. government humanitarian response. While they were in the air, the consulate rushed to procure equipment and services they required: forklifts, flatbed and cargo trucks, passenger buses, interpreters, fuel, and industrial oxygen. As power and internet flickered back on, what remained of the management section got to work, with remote support from Embassy Ankara. LE staff juggled cell phones and landlines, shouting across the tops of cubicles like brokers on a trading floor. The local guard force made a spreadsheet of everyone they knew who owned a truck. When the USAID DART and USAR teams arrived at Incirlik Air Force Base the following morning, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake, who had been flown down by C-12 aircraft, met them on the tarmac. Behind him was a line of heavy vehicles stretching to the horizon, waiting to take DART and their gear to remote and hard-hit Adiyaman.
Thanks to post’s small press team, joined by intrepid volunteers from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkish press published striking images of American helicopters carrying 600,000 pounds of aid to inaccessible mountain villages, American ships offloading pallets of relief at local ports, American charters landing two million pounds of supplies at Adana’s commercial airport, and the U.S. military constructing a $16 million field hospital. Consulate Adana’s press team liaised with Turkish media and the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Task Force public affairs to shape U.S. messaging. Meanwhile, Consulate Adana—the only foreign diplomatic post in the earthquake zone—became a critical resource for diplomatic partners. Belgian, Israeli, Japanese, and other delegations lined up at the gate for maps, damage assessments, security briefings, local contacts, and lists of trucks for rent.
Post assisted U.S. citizens with emergency passports, repatriation loans, and onward transportation. As Adana became a national response hub, flights and hotels were overbooked with aid workers and journalists. The arrival of USAID DART tripled the number of U.S. personnel at post, which had only a handful of LE support staff remaining. With creativity, patience, and persistence, post first found lodging for arriving DART colleagues, and then set up a sustainable staff rotation with colleagues from Ankara and Istanbul to give the exhausted consulate team some rest. They also contracted a public affairs grantee to provide Turkish-language trauma counseling for local staff.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured the earthquake disaster zone in Hatay Province by helicopter with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Feb. 19. Blinken personally thanked USAID, the Department of Defense, and NGO first responders and relief workers, and pledged an additional $100 million in earthquake response assistance.
In a joint press availability with the Foreign Minister, Blinken said that his visit was an important opportunity to deliver a clear message to America’s Turkish Allies and friends from President Joe Biden and the American people that “the United States is here to support you in your time of need, and we will be by your side for as long as it takes to recover and to rebuild.”
The road trips post took after the earthquake—many with Mission refugee coordinators assessing how to deploy additional funds from the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in support of the most vulnerable groups—were haunting. Drivers, bodyguards, and interpreters who lost cousins and childhood friends fell silent as consulate vehicles entered neighborhoods in which they had played as kids and drove past street corners on which they had laughed and shared tea with friends only a few weeks before—now reduced to fields of rubble and debris.
In a mid-March meeting on the ground in Hatay, local officials were red-eyed but resolute. The city of Antakya, once ancient Antioch, had been a summer playground of trellised courtyards and lemon trees. The earthquakes left almost nothing. Street after grim street was lined with mountains of broken concrete. And yet, Turkish officials said they would make it whole again. It had been their home for centuries; they had no other choice.
The day after the Feb. 6 earthquakes, the Department issued a request for proposals for the construction of a new consulate compound in Adana. Like its Turkish hosts, Consulate Adana will rebuild.
The Foreign Service National (FSN) Relief Fund is accepting donations and providing financial aid to LE staff whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the earthquakes.
Multiple authors and editors from Consulate Adana’s U.S. and LE staff team contributed to this article.