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How is the U.S. helping the victims of last week's quake in Turkey and Syria?


Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria are racing against time, as hope to find survivors fades by the hour. It's been a week since a major earthquake hit the region. And the death toll has surpassed 35,000. A U.N. official predicts that number will rise to 50,000. Hundreds of thousands are in temporary shelters - the Turkish government says over a million - some in freezing temperatures with no real idea of what comes next. The international community, though, is stepping up to help. Joining us now to talk about the U.S. government, how they're supporting its NATO ally is Jeff Flake, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Ambassador, the U.S. has pledged to provide $85 million in humanitarian aid. How far do you think that money can go, given the great need?

JEFF FLAKE: Well, there is a great need, obviously. But that will go for food and shelter and winter supplies, health care services, drinking water, hygiene, sanitation supplies. So it's a good initial response. And we already have two USAID-supported urban search and rescue teams that have been here for the past few days, the past several days, assistant in - assisting in some of these miraculous rescues that you've probably seen.

MARTÍNEZ: And from your talks, Ambassador, with the Turkish government, what's most needed right now?

FLAKE: Well, it's shelter. Now that we're going to be moving quickly from the - kind of the search and rescue phase to the recovery phase, you still have so many people without shelter. In the affected area, there are about 21 million people living. And even if their buildings didn't collapse, many of them are unsafe. And people are afraid to go back into their accommodations, so a lot of tents and winter supplies because it is cold here. I'm down at Incirlik Air Base right now, if you can - may be able to hear the helicopters in the background loading up supplies to take to the affected areas.

MARTÍNEZ: Does it look at all like it might be warming up anytime soon? Have you heard anything like that?

FLAKE: It is warmer today than it has been. But it's still cold. And obviously, there's snow-capped mountains all around us here in Adana. And some of the other areas, Adiyaman, where our crews are working with - alongside their Turkish counterparts is even colder.

MARTÍNEZ: Because the weather changing would be one amazing way to help if that could be somehow possible, right? I mean, it's so cold that it's making rescue efforts difficult.

FLAKE: You bet. It makes everything more difficult. So it's been much below the edge here. And so that's just one more difficult thing to overcome.

MARTÍNEZ: And I know that with only one recognized border crossing, the aid is not necessarily getting to the rebel-held northwest part of Syria. And the U.S. is urging the U.N. Security Council to vote immediately to authorize two more crossings. Ambassador, how does the United States make sure that the aid actually gets to the places and people that need it, considering how shaky the security situation can be there?

FLAKE: It is far more difficult in - particularly in northwest Syria, where you have a mix of regime-controlled areas and rebel-controlled areas or opposition areas. And - but we have humanitarian partners that are working there for a while that are providing relief irrespective of who controls the area. We just want to provide humanitarian relief. Obviously, it's more difficult given the situation. Turkey is in a better place there because you have a very functioning government, capable and experienced, just kind of overwhelmed - everyone is - by this tragedy.

MARTÍNEZ: In these kinds of situations, do troops get involved when it comes to getting the aid to where it needs to go?

FLAKE: We have - I mentioned I'm at Incirlik Air Base now. And military is involved in terms of coordination. We're only acting, you know, at the request of our Turkish counterparts. But we have flown a number of missions with Black Hawks, for example, to get needed relief workers and supplies to these certain areas. We're standing up some field hospitals, our military is, as well as - we're doing that in partnership with Samaritan's Purse and other nonprofit organizations.

MARTÍNEZ: That is U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.