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What the damage and recovery looks like in Turkey a month after the earthquakes

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today marks four weeks since the devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey and northern Syria. At least 50,000 people have died. Tens of thousands more are injured. Recovery is going slowly, and many people still need urgent help with basic necessities.

NPR's Fatma Tanis has been reporting from the quake zone and is now in Gaziantep, Turkey. Hey, Fatma.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So after a month, has the search for missing people ended?

TANIS: Unfortunately, Ari, not for many families. They are still searching everywhere for loved ones. You can see flyers around with missing persons. Hospitals are getting lots of calls. But also, bodies are still being found under the rubble, and many families are waiting for news. You mentioned thousands of people are injured. Some of them with critical injuries are dying. And so while the death count is not increasing at the rates that it did earlier, it's still ticking up slowly.

Now, in Syria, information is harder to come by because of the civil war there, but the United Nations says around 6,000 people died there, and also many areas have been devastated.

SHAPIRO: You visited some of the worst-hit areas in Turkey over the weekend. Tell us about what you saw there.

TANIS: Yes. I went to Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the earthquake, and Antakya. And, you know, Ari, when I stepped out of the car, my eyes immediately started burning from the dust coming out of all of the rubble. It was also difficult to breathe. The air is so polluted and so is the water in these cities. You know, they used to have drinkable tap water before, but the pipes have been destroyed in the earthquake.

In Antakya, I met Hussein Dawood. He was outside his tent with his children. He's one of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. And here he is speaking in Arabic.

HUSSEIN DAWOOD: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: He says they completely ran out of water the day before and just received some bottles from aid workers. But they have no idea when they can get more, so they have to ration it, and there's nowhere to even buy some if you have money.

This is something I heard all over the quake zones. And in these cities, you can still see mountains of rubble. And the few buildings that are still standing are tilted at alarming angles, and you still have people camping near them. While they have started demolition on those buildings, there's just so many that it's going to take a while. You know, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of structures destroyed or deemed too dangerous to live in.

SHAPIRO: And the U.N. says at least 1.5 million people have lost their homes. You said there are these encampment sites. Tell us about the conditions people are living in.

TANIS: Right. So hundreds of thousands of people have left the area and gone to other parts of Turkey. But the thousands that are in the quake zone are sheltering in tents provided by the government. But there's a shortage of that, too, and so there are many families who are still looking for tents to shelter in. They are sleeping wherever they can find, and conditions are really bad. They don't have access to toilets, running water. They can't take showers. Several people I talked to broke down in tears as they talked about how hard they worked to save money to buy homes only to lose it all.

There are also a lot of other long-term needs. In one tent camp in Kahramanmaras, I met one woman with disabilities who needs a wheelchair. Her name is Semra Tas. And when I introduced myself as a reporter, she didn't even wait to hear a question.

SEMRA TAS: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: She said she's been asking for a wheelchair for weeks now because she can't walk. She also said she and other people in the camp desperately need clothes, underwear and women's sanitary products.

A few families invited me inside their tents, and, Ari, there was no stuff - no bags of clothes or anything. They had just had these thin mattresses and blankets. Many people are still wearing the same clothes they had on the night of the earthquake.

SHAPIRO: When the earthquake first happened, we were talking about the threat of freezing temperatures and snow. Has that situation at least improved with the passage of time and things warming up as spring approaches?

TANIS: Certainly during the day it's warmer, but, you know, in the nights, the temperature falls to just above freezing. And so, you know, people here aren't used to that kind of cold. And there are also - you know, rain is expected this week, and it's also really windy.

SHAPIRO: So with such overwhelming need, what is the response like right now?

TANIS: You know, there's been a lot of anger at the government's response here, that it came too little, too late. Nowadays, you do see the government around. Many departments are represented. In one area, I saw narcotics police passing out children's clothes. They've set up daycare, social services and mental health support, which is a huge need, especially for children who have been traumatized. But you still hear people saying it's not enough.

Ten cities in Turkey were impacted by this earthquake and many towns and villages. And so there are areas that help hasn't reached yet. And people will need housing and all kinds of help for a long time. And not just in Turkey, but in Syria as well. There, a lot of the damage has been in rebel-held areas, and because of the civil war, there have been issues with the U.N. getting access to people.

SHAPIRO: And there's a political element to all of this because Turkey is expected to have elections within the next few months. So tell us about that aspect.

TANIS: Yeah. The election coverage is certainly ramping up here in the media. And, you know, I've been noticing that government officials have been sort of restricting journalists' access to quake areas and tent camps. And the reason is that they want to stop some of the negative coverage that could impact the president's chances at winning the election. So more and more, we're going to be hearing politics coming into play.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Fatma Tanis reporting from Gaziantep, Turkey. Thanks a lot.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Fatma Tanis