A huge earthquake killed more than 2,600 people across a swathe of Turkey and northwest Syria on Monday, with freezing winter weather adding to the plight of the many thousands left injured or homeless and hampering efforts to find survivors.
The magnitude 7.8 quake brought down whole apartment blocks in Turkish cities and piled more devastation on millions of Syrians displaced by years of war.
The worst tremor to strike Turkey this century, it came before sunrise in harsh weather and was followed in the early afternoon by another large quake of magnitude 7.7.
Thousands of buildings have been destroyed in Turkey and Syria following two powerful earthquakes, which could result in more than $1 bn of losses, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
In Turkey, compulsory earthquake insurance is offered to the public via a catastrophe insurance pool, which has a claims paying capacity of nearly $2.5 bn, based on its 2021 reinsurance renewal.
Munich Re and Swiss Re would have the biggest shares of the pool’s reinsurance tower, which attached at around $260 mn and covered losses to close to $2 bn, with other major reinsurers from the London and Bermuda market also participating.
If losses do exceed the $1 bn level, which seems more likely following the second large quake, then it seems there is a good chance that at least some of the losses will flow through to reinsurers via this arrangement.
In Turkey, the death toll stood at 1,651, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said, and 11,119 people were recorded as injured. At least 968 people were killed in Syria, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue workers in the northwestern region controlled by insurgents.
Poor internet connections and damaged roads between some of the worst-hit cities in Turkey’s south, homes to millions of people, hindered efforts to assess and address the impact.
Temperatures in some areas were expected to fall to near freezing overnight, worsening conditions for people trapped under rubble or left homeless. Rain was falling on Monday after snowstorms swept the country at the weekend.
It is already the highest death toll from an earthquake in Turkey since 1999, when a tremor of similar magnitude devastated the heavily populated eastern Marmara Sea region near Istanbul, killing more than 17,000.
The first quake was recorded at magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale and struck in the early hours of this morning near the city of Gaziantep in south-eastern Turkey, with deadly tremors also extending over the Syrian border into the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus.
Less than 12 hours later, a second earthquake measured at magnitude 7.7 then occured slightly further north east, near the city of Kahramanmaraş.
The official combined death toll across Turkey and Syria from both quakes has already exceeded 1,200, with thousands more injured. These figures are expected to climb much further still as rescue operations continue.
The earthquake is one of the largest ever recorded in Southern Turkey, although the region is particularly seismically active.
Turkey’s President Erdoğan has described the quakes as the country’s largest disaster since 1939, when the Erzincan earthquake left nearly 33,000 people dead and some 100,000 injured.
The USGS notes that the population in the areas hit by today’s earthquakes resides in structures that are extremely vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist.
There is a 78% chance that economic damages will rise above US $1 billion, although it is important to note that this guidance was issued before the occurrence of the second magnitude 7.7 earthquake.
A comparable magnitude 6.7 earthquake resulted in losses of around $600 million when it impacted the same region in January 2020. But it’s thought that any losses to the re/insurance industry will be much lower, given the level of insurance penetration in the affected countries.
In Syria, already wrecked by more than 11 years of civil war, the health ministry said 538 people had been killed and more than 1,326 injured. In the Syrian rebel-held northwest, emergency workers said 430 people had died.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the earthquake would only add to the suffering of millions of Syrians already enduring a humanitarian crisis due to the civil war.
In the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Reuters journalists saw dozens of rescue workers searching through a mound of debris, all that was left of a big building, and hauling off bits of wreckage as they looked for survivors. Occasionally they raised their hands and called for quiet, listening for sounds of life.
Men carried a girl wrapped in blankets from a collapsed building in the city. In Izmir, drone footage showed rescue workers stood atop a hill of rubble where a building once stood, working to lift slabs of masonry.
by Yana Keller