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News | Death Toll at 300, Over 5,000 Injured in East Azerbaijan Earthquakes

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI and DAN GEIST

12 Aug 2012 05:00Comments
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Press Roundup provides a selected summary of news from the Farsi and Arabic press and excerpts where the source is in English. Tehran Bureau has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy. Any views expressed are the authors' own. Please refer to the Media Guide to help put the stories in perspective. You can follow breaking news stories on our Twitter feed.

12:20 a.m. IRDT, 23 Mordad/August 13 The semiofficial Mehr News Agency reports that 70 percent of the dead in the East Azerbaijan earthquake disaster are children and women. Since the quakes happened in the afternoon and it is the fasting month of Ramadan, many women were home to prepare food for iftar -- breaking the fast -- while the men were at work farming. Most of the critically injured are children under the age of nine.

The Institute for Earthquake Studies in Tehran had warned about the possibility of large earthquakes in the area this year, due to the activity of a large fault north of Tabriz that is now believed to have caused the quakes. Reports indicate that 440 villages have suffered structural damage ranging from 40 to 100 percent. According to historical records, in 1770 there was a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in the same region.

The first Varzagan County rescue team was not dispatched until seven hours after the initial earthquakes, which occurred just before and after 5 p.m. on Saturday. One reason for the delay is that the county governor does not work in the eponymous county capital near the first quake's epicenter. It took him about three hours to get there to begin organizing rescue operations.

Allahverdi Dehghani, the Majles deputy from Varzagan, accused the East Azerbaijan provincial crisis management center of deliberately concealing the severity of the situation in Varzagan. Abbas Fallah, the deputy from Ahar and Haris, two of the stricken towns, also criticized the slow pace of rescue operations and said that people in his district do not have drinking water. He said that if this continues, the number of dead will rise significantly. He pleaded for help from the entire nation. Several reports indicate that potable water, food, tents, blankets, and medical personnel are all in short supply in the stricken areas.

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Blood donation centers in Tabriz (left) and Tehran (right)

11 p.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 Tehran Bureau contributor Ali Chenar submits the following dispatch:

Iranian authorities state that rescue efforts have concluded in the northwestern region that was struck by two powerful earthquakes on Saturday afternoon and a series of aftershocks that extended through Sunday morning. Visiting the stricken region to take direct charge of continuing relief efforts, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar told reporters that many roads are still closed and rescuers were able to reach some villages only via air.

While official reaction is described by many as lukewarm at best -- Tehran is preoccupied with the upcoming gathering of the leaders of Non-Aligned Movement -- Iranians have rallied together in the face of adversity. Eyewitness accounts describe long lines at blood donation centers in the capital. Mina, 29, went to one early Sunday morning, where she found many young people already queued up. Internet-based social networks have played a significant role in updating the public and organizing the relief effort. Yasaman, a 22-year-old student who went to a blood donation center in Enghelab Square, said, "Most of the people who came there to donate blood received the news via Facebook."

However, not all blood centers were ready to accept donations. Because of Ramadan, many centers were closed in the morning. Ali Reza, a 32-year-old IT expert, went to one of those. "The sign on the door said they were closed until 7:30 p.m." That struck him as outrageous. "People need blood and all these guys have done is to take their day off.

Many well-wishing individuals have tried to find out what else is needed most. Elham, a student at Azad University, said, "I was surprised to see there was no list posted on the Red Crescent webpage." When she called the Red Crescent offices in the morning, she was told to follow the news via IRIB, itself under scrutiny for not vigilantly covering the earthquake news (see 10:25 a.m. post below). Some have even tried to reach the rescue teams in the disaster area to ask what is needed.

Charitable NGOs, schools, and other organizations are also helping to organize relief efforts. The Society for the Protection and Assistance of Socially Disadvantaged Individuals (SPASDI) has been collecting donated supplies since Sunday morning and sending them via ground to the affected region. SPASDI also participated in the relief effort for the 2003 earthquake near the southern city of Bam that killed approximately 25,000 people. Mehr-e Taha, a children's advocacy group, is circulating a list of most needed items and preparing shelters for the children affected by the disaster.

Various individuals, from teachers and physicians to ex-politicians, have volunteered to collect and distribute public donations. Ali Daei, the celebrated former soccer player and coach, has already left Tehran for the disaster area with a caravan of basic goods. The office of Ayatollah Bayat Zanjani has announced its readiness to collect believers' donations and transporting them to East Azerbaijan.

The response to the disaster has not been limited to Iranians within the country. Scores of Iranians abroad have been using online social networks to find ways of sending aid. Internationally imposed sanctions have made it impossible to send even one dollar from any bank in North American or European Union to Iran. Mehdi, a 42-year-old businessman from west Tehran, has already been contacted by a dozen of his friends and relatives who live abroad. All have been asking him the same question: "If we send you some money, would you send it to the victims of the earthquake?" Mehdi has business partners who will accept cash and deposits on his behalf. "I told them that I would do this. They are going to give the money to a business associate of mine and I am going to give the equivalent with a bit extra for myself to one of the NGOs or the Red Crescent." Of course, not everybody has the privilege of knowing someone like Mehdi. In his opinion, "Many Iranians abroad would hesitate to do such transfers, because these are the back channels and they do not have someone they trust completely." For the time being, Iranians outside the country are continuing to look for ways to bypass the sanctions. According to Mina, "Iranians never fail each other in such disasters. The outpouring of public support is as passionate as it should be."

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9:20 p.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 According to reports from Iranian news services, the death toll in the East Azerbaijan earthquakes has reached 300; over 5,000 people have been injured. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports that "seven expert teams" from the state coroner's office have headed to the quake-affected region.

By the official figures reported on the IRNA website, Saturday's two primary "quakes were, respectively, measured [at] 6.2 and 6.0 on [the] Richter scale, followed by 55 aftershocks, the strongest of which was measured [at] 4.8 Richter." The Richter, or local, magnitude scale is based on the seismographic detection of terrestrial waves and thus reflects the measurable energy released by a given quake. The U.S. Geological Survey employs the newer and more precise moment magnitude scale, which measures the event's physical scope based on the average amount of slippage along the active fault and the size of the area that slipped; the Survey's corresponding figures are 6.4 and 6.3 for the two primary quakes and 5.1 for the most powerful aftershock. Unless otherwise specified, all direct references to the quakes' magnitude in this item are based on the Survey's data.

The New York Times reports,

One Iranian seismologist, Bahram Akasheh, said that Saturday's temblor was relatively mild, and attributed the loss of life to shoddy construction and poor oversight. "Nowhere in the world would a magnitude 6 earthquake kill so many people. There shouldn't have been more than 10 injured," he told the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency on Sunday.

Mr. Akasheh, who has long predicted millions of deaths if an earthquake were to strike the capital, said Iran needed to prepare for even worse disasters in the future.

"Soon we will be hit by a 7 or higher quake," he said. "I am very worried."

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12:05 p.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 A 13th major aftershock, of magnitude 4.4, was recorded at 11:10 a.m. (the U.S. Geological Survey's notation of 10:10 a.m. does not take into account the local adjustment for daylight savings time). This latest earthquake occurred 18 miles northwest of Ahar and is the most northern in the series of now 15 quakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater that have shaken Iran's East Azerbaijan province.

Moharram Foroughi, governor of Varzagan County, where the two primary quakes struck yesterday, tells the Islamic Republic News Agency that there were no deaths in the county seat of Varzagan, a town whose population was just over 3,500 in the census taken six years ago. Foroughi said that 50 people had been killed and more than 500 wounded in nearby villages. According to the governor, while 500 tents have been distributed to people displaced by the quake in the area, another 1,200 are required and there is an urgent need for food in the affected region.

10:25 a.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 Tehran Bureau contributor Ali Chenar files the following report:

Sunday morning, many Iranians woke up to the news of the devastating earthquakes in East Azerbaijan province. While many rush to donate blood, cash, and necessities, some have decided to travel to the region to get news from their families and loved ones. Telecommunications are down in Varzagan County and there appears to be an acute shortage of medical assistance in the quake-stricken area.

Amid this national disaster many Iranians, independent of their political affiliations, are highly critical of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). It did not interrupt its scheduled programs marking the holy nights of Qadr during Ramadan to report the news of the earthquakes; when it finally did cover the mounting disaster, it did not do so as breaking news, but downplayed its size and significance, reporting only "a few casualties."

The state broadcaster's response to the earthquakes has sparked angry reactions from many quarters. According to a statement on the conservative Tabnak news website, "Since no one cares to announce an official mourning, we at Tabnak announce that we are in mourning for the victims of the recent earthquakes." The website invited comments from its readers, a large number of whom state that they learned of the earthquake not from IRIB but rather from BBC Persian TV. The reformist Digarban website observed that this is the first time IRIB has downplayed a national disaster in such a manner. For many of the victims of the earthquake and their extended families, this means that they have to rely largely on the rumor mill and foreign news coverage for reports on their home towns and villages.

Sample of TV coverage

A 12th major aftershock, of magnitude 4.0, was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey at 8:55 a.m. local time approximately 17 miles south-southwest of Ahar. Unlike the two primary temblors and the first 11 major aftershocks, all of which took place at depths between 9.7 and 10 kilometers below the earth's surface, Sunday morning's quake occurred at an estimated depth of only 5.2 kilometers.

9:10 a.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 According to Press TV, the English-language subsidiary of the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network, 250 people are now reported to have been killed as a consequence of the earthquakes that struck northwestern Iran on Saturday. Over 2,000 people are said to be injured. In addition to the webpages linked at the bottom of this item, more images of the damage caused by the quakes and the ongoing rescue operations are available here, here, here, and here.

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5:00 a.m. IRDT, 22 Mordad/August 12 At least 182 people have been killed and 1,500 injured by two large earthquakes that struck northwestern Iran Saturday afternoon. The quakes, measured at magnitudes of 6.4 and 6.3 according to the United States Geological Survey, struck 36 and 30 miles, respectively, northeast of Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province; Ahar, a city of 95,000 people, is located just 14 miles northeast of the first quake's epicenter.

The first quake occurred at 4:53 p.m. local time; the second, 11 minutes later. As of this item's publication, the U.S. Geological Survey had recorded 11 powerful aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater, the most intense taking place ten hours after the initial quake and registering at 5.1. The Geophysics Center of the University of Tehran recorded dozens of smaller aftershocks. Reports indicate that while Tabriz was largely unscathed, Ahar sustained significant damage and many villages and small towns in the earthquake-stricken zone around the two cities have been devastated. Most of the casualties so far have been recorded in two counties around the quakes' epicenters, Varzagan and Haris.

Khalil Saei, head of East Azerbaijan's crisis management center, told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) that the structures in six villages around Ahar have been completely destroyed and 50-70 percent of 60 additional villages are in ruins, encompassing about 25,000 people. The roads to at least four villages have been damaged so badly that they cannot be reached by land vehicles. As of 2 a.m. local time, rescue services had still not reached at least ten villages near the heart of the affected region.

Several natural gas pipelines have exploded in Ahar, causing further damage, and the supply of gas has been cut off to approximately 70 villages in the surrounding area. All communication lines, including phones, with Varzagan have been severed as a result of the earthquakes. Tabriz lost almost all electrical power, but it has been restored.

According to Seyyed Hossein Saberi, governor-general of neighboring Ardabil province, several earthquakes shook various parts of Ardabil, injuring about 50 people. The town of Astara in Gilan province, near the borders of Ardabil and the Republic of Azerbaijan, was reportedly hit by a sizable quake. And there were reports that the cities of Salmas, Mahabad, and Miandoab in West Azerbaijan were also shaken by the tremors.

Mahmoud Mozaffar, head of the Red Crescent Society of Ahar, told ISNA that 210 people had been rescued there and in Varzagan. Fifteen teams of rescue dogs were searching for survivors, while three helicopters aided the rescue operations. Police have called on citizens not to use the Ahar-Tabriz highway, so that rescue teams can reach the stricken areas more swiftly. It also urged people not to spend Saturday night at home, but to stay in open areas in the event of further strong aftershocks. Dr. Mohammad Gheytanchi, director of earthquake research at the University of Tehran's Geophysics Center, warned that aftershocks may be expected for up to 48 hours after the first major temblor. He added that it is not yet clear precisely which geological fault produced the earthquakes.

Over the past four decades, the closest major earthquake was one that occurred approximately 65 miles to the east in Ardabil on February 28, 1997; at least 850 people were killed and 2,600 people were injured in the quake, described by the Iranian government as of 5.5 magnitude and by the U.S. Geological Survey as 6.1. Pictures of the devastation caused by Saturday's quakes and of the ongoing rescue operations are available here, here, here, here, and here.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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