The official death toll from the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and neighbouring Syria has risen to more than 9,500, with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announcing plans to travel to the epicentre.
Amid mounting criticism of the authorities’ response to Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake and calls for the government to send more help to the disaster zone, Erdoğan was due to travel to town of Pazarcık and the worst-hit province of Hatay.
Turkey’s disaster management authority said on Wednesday morning that 7,108 people were confirmed dead in the quake, while Syria’s civil defence updated its toll to 2,547. Experts have warned the total will climb further and could yet double.
As an army of rescuers continued to comb through the rubble of collapsed buildings in freezing temperatures, the World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned it was now “a race against time” to find those feared trapped.
The WHO has warned that up to 23 million people could be affected by the massive earthquake and urged countries to rush help to the disaster zone. Dozens, including the US, China and multiple EU states have pledged help and search teams as well as relief supplies have begun to arrive by air.
A winter storm has complicated the rescue effort, however, with many roads – some of them damaged by the quake – rendered almost impassable, resulting in traffic jams that stretch for kilometres in some regions.
Criticism continued to mount over what many in Turkey described as a slow and inadequate response to the disaster, with much anger also focused on an “earthquake tax” levied by the Turkish government more than two decades ago.
The estimated 88bn lira (£3.8bn) levy, raised in 1999 after more than 17,000 people were killed in another powerful quake in north-western Turkey, was intended to be spent on disaster prevention and better emergency services, but little information is available about how it has been spent.
“There is not even a single person here. We are under the snow, without a home, without anything,” Murat Alinak, whose home in Malatya collapsed and whose relatives are missing, told Reuters. “What shall I do, where can I go?”
People in remote towns in southern Turkey described how relief efforts were stretched to breaking point, amid the destruction that spanned a border region almost 650 miles long.
Despite critical need to reach survivors quickly, no rescue teams arrived in the city of Gaziantep in the first 12 hours after the disaster, forcing victims’ relatives and local police to clear the ruins by hand, witnesses told AFP.
When the rescuers finally came on Monday evening, they only worked for a few hours before breaking for the night, residents told the news agency.
Many Turks vented their anger online over what they said was a negligent emergency response in the southernmost province of Hatay, with many complaining that rescue efforts had failed to reach the area.
“I am so angry,” said the analyst Gönül Tol, of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “People are trying to dig out loved ones trapped under rubble. It is cold, raining, no electricity. One family member is trapped under a heavy concrete slab, waiting for rescue workers for hours.”
Without enough rescuers, volunteers say they will have to step in and do the hard work themselves.
“We go to places to help people who were originally supposed to be rescued by the Red Crescent, but where no help comes,” said Ceren Soylu, a member of a volunteer group set up by the rightwing opposition İyi party.
“We often define major earthquakes as disasters. This is more than an earthquake, this is a disaster,” he said.
The coordinator said those trapped beneath rubble were at increasing risk with each passing hour. “To ensure people get the proper help might not be easy for the first 72 hours after such major and catastrophic earthquakes,” he said. “Team coordination, transportation and logistical issues are not easy.”.
Öngören also said the true number of collapsed buildings was likely to greatly exceed the confirmed tally so far, adding: “When you combine the number of these collapsed buildings with other criteria, I can say that we are faced with a difficult operation.”
On Tuesday, a newborn baby girl was pulled alive from the rubble of a home in northern Syria, after relatives found her still tied by her umbilical cord to her mother, who died in the earthquake. The infant is the sole survivor of her immediate family.