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USAID team leader on the rescue effort in Turkish cities hit hard by earthquake

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been five days since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake turned entire towns into rubble across Turkey and Syria. More than 20,000 people are known to have died. Search and rescue teams are still digging through piles of concrete. The U.S. Agency for International Development has deployed teams to some of the hardest-hit Turkish cities, including Adiyaman. That team is being led by Stephen Allen, who is with us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEPHEN ALLEN: Hey. Thanks, Ari. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what the last few days have been like. When did you get to Adiyaman, and what did you find?

ALLEN: Yeah. So we got to Adiyaman early yesterday morning. And I can tell you that the level of destruction and the level of just obvious impact is really - it's almost overwhelming.

SHAPIRO: At this point, five days in with freezing temperatures, how much hope is there for finding survivors who are still trapped?

ALLEN: So hope holds for a long time. And I can tell you the teams are very hopeful. They're realistic about the situation. They recognize that conditions have been very difficult with temperatures very cold here. So it's not an easy situation at all. But the teams are still hopeful.

SHAPIRO: And in addition to the already staggering death toll, there's an even larger number of people who have been injured or displaced. So USAID has pledged $85 million so far. But right now, how wide is the gap between the needs for shelter and medicine and the resources that are available?

ALLEN: It's a great question. And I should clarify that our team is covering the effects of the earthquake in both Turkey and Syria. And the effects of this earthquake - you know, they don't recognize borders. They don't recognize political boundaries. And the needs on both sides of the border are very high. The 85 million that we have pledged is not just a pledge. It will go out very, very quickly.

In Turkiye, the government has very high capacity for this kind of event. In this case, it's such a large tragedy that they could not handle it themselves and asked for help. So there are tents and tent cities that have been set up. People are sleeping in makeshift shelters. There are people who are gathered on the streets near their buildings, near places where they evacuated, sort of huddled together, keeping warm. People have been evacuated from here to neighboring provinces and as far as Ankara to receive medical treatment. Hospitals are very crowded in the region. There are several field hospitals that have been set up and are still being set up to help with that effort so that the work continues there.

SHAPIRO: So what's your top priority in this moment?

ALLEN: Right now, it remains with the search and rescue team, even as it's getting further from the time when we'd expect to find a lot of survivors. If there is any chance of saving additional people, we really need to get that done.

SHAPIRO: I know you've been with USAID for a number of years. Have you ever seen anything like this?

ALLEN: I have never seen anything like this. I have worked in some pretty tough spots. I - you know, I've done a lot of conflict zones and that kind of thing. But this large-scale earthquake on this level - I really don't think many people have seen anything like this. It's really hard to describe the level of devastation that this has caused.

SHAPIRO: And in the slightly more than 24 hours that you have been there in that town, can you tell me about someone you've met, somebody you interacted with?

ALLEN: One is somebody I talked to last night at a dig site where we're trying to determine if there was any - if there were any survivors left in the building. And it was a Syrian man who came here to Turkey from Syria as a refugee. And his family was killed in that collapse in the building. And I just - I could not help but think how hard that must be to flee one impossibly difficult circumstance and to find yourself in another impossibly difficult circumstance where you lose your family. And my heart really, really broke for him and his family. But I want to tell you also about the generosity of the Turkish people. You know, we have been received here with nothing but generosity, open arms, enthusiasm. Everything we have needed, everything we've asked for they have tried to provide. I really do want to highlight that, you know, it's been just a fantastic experience working alongside Turkish crews and Turkish people.

SHAPIRO: That's Stephen Allen, who's leading the USAID team in Adiyaman, Turkey. Thank you for speaking with us.

ALLEN: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.