KAHRAMANMARAS/ANTAKYA, Turkey—Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan visited southern Turkey on Wednesday to see first-hand the destruction wrought by a massive earthquake as anger grew among local people over what they said was a slow government response to the rescue and relief effort.
The combined confirmed death toll from Monday’s quake, which struck a swathe of southern Turkey and neighboring Syria, rose to more than 11,000 people.
The tally was expected to rise as hundreds of collapsed buildings in many cities have become tombs for people who had been asleep in their homes when the quake hit in the early morning.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens of bodies, some covered in blankets and sheets and others in body bags, were lined up on the ground outside a hospital.
“My wife doesn’t speak Turkish, and I can’t see very well,” said one man, who did not give his name. “We have to check all the faces. We need help.”
Families in southern Turkey and in Syria spent a second night in the freezing cold as overwhelmed rescuers tried to pull people from the rubble.
Many in the Turkish disaster zone had slept in their cars or in the streets under blankets, fearful of going back into buildings shaken by the 7.8 magnitude tremor—Turkey’s deadliest since 1999—and by a second powerful quake hours later.
“Where are the tents, where are food trucks?” said Melek, 64, in Antakya, saying she had not seen any rescue teams.
“We haven’t seen any food distribution here, unlike previous disasters in our country. We survived the earthquake, but we will die here due to hunger or cold here.”
The death toll rose above 8,500 in Turkey. In Syria, already devastated by 11 years of war, the confirmed toll climbed to more than 2,500 overnight, according to the Syrian government and a rescue service operating in the rebel-held northwest.
Erdogan, who has declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces and sent in troops to help, arrived in the city of Kahramanmaras to view the damage and see the rescue and relief effort.
Speaking to reporters, with constant ambulance sirens in the background, Erdogan said there had been problems with roads and airports but that everything would get better by the day.
The disaster poses a new challenge to him in the election he faces in May that was already set to be the toughest of his two decades in power.
Any perception that the government is failing to address the disaster properly could hurt Erdogan’s prospects in the vote, but analysts say that on the other hand, he could rally national support around the crisis response and strengthen his position.
Reuters journalists in Kahramanmaras saw around 50 bodies draped in blankets on the floor of a sports hall. Family members searched for relatives among the dead.
Kneeling on the auditorium floor, a woman wailed with grief and embraced a body wrapped in a blanket
In Hatay Province, where dozens more bodies lay outside in rows between Red Crescent tents, people opened body bags hoping to identify loved ones.
The quake toppled thousands of buildings including hospitals, schools, and apartment blocks, injured tens of thousands, and left countless people homeless in Turkey and northern Syria.
Turkish authorities say some 13.5 million people were affected in an area spanning roughly 450 km (280 miles) from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east.
In Syria, it killed people as far south as Hama.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said the number of injured was above 38,000.
‘Under the Rubble’
Aid officials voiced particular concern about the situation in Syria, where humanitarian needs were already greater than at any point since the eruption of a conflict that has partitioned the nation and is complicating relief efforts.
Residents in Syrian government-held territory contacted by phone have described the authorities’ response as slow, with some areas receiving more help than others.
In the town of Jandaris in northern Syria, rescue workers and residents said dozens of buildings had collapsed.
Standing around the wreckage of what had been a 32-apartment building, relatives of people who had lived there said they had seen no one removed alive. A lack of heavy equipment to remove large concrete slabs was impeding rescue efforts.
Rescue workers have struggled to reach some of the worst-hit areas, held back by destroyed roads, poor weather, and a lack of resources and heavy equipment. Some areas are without fuel and electricity.
A rescue service operating in insurgent-held northwest Syria said the number of dead had climbed to more than 1,280 and more than 2,600 were injured.
“The number is expected to rise significantly due to the presence of hundreds of families under the rubble, more than 50 hours after the earthquake,” the rescue service said on Twitter.
Overnight, the Syrian health minister said the number of dead in government-held areas rose to 1,250, the state-run al-Ikhbariya news outlet reported on its Telegram feed. The number of wounded was 2,054, he said.