Lessons From Turkey's Quake

It takes a world - as much as a village - to rescue a nation from an earthquake.

Last week, 35 nations and dozens of international organizations sent over 2,200 experts to Turkey in a well-coordinated rescue and relief effort. Their first job was to find and extricate people still alive in the rubble of 60,000 buildings tumbled by the Aug. 17 quake, which was spread across 175 miles. Teams from individual nations such as Israel were quick in locating survivors.

But credit for making their jobs easier goes to a small United Nations agency charged with directing foreign emergency teams in natural disasters.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, was central to the rescue effort because Turkey's government was so badly disorganized. "Where's the state?" Turkish survivors asked.

And OCHA was obviously ready for the task, unlike the UN High Commission for Refugees during the early days of the Kosovo war.

The UN has learned from past attempts that its best role in disaster scenes is to pool the efforts of national governments, not to do the work itself. The first such agency, the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator, was set up in 1971 after the international community failed to respond well to such disasters as floods in Bangladesh. After many missteps, the UN finally created OCHA last year with a realistic mandate.

The Geneva-based agency has its work cut out for it. Extreme weather seems to have increased the number of natural disasters in some parts of the world. Last year, OCHA sent rapid-response teams to 17 disasters. But Turkey was its first big test, and it passed in what one official called "a textbook operation."

The quake will rank as one of this century's largest natural disasters, with thousands of victims still buried.

But this century's disasters have also brought the world together in responding faster and better to the human needs in such tragedies.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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