The search for survivors grew more desperate, the homeless problem more acute and the death toll rose to more than 16,000 Thursday as rescuers labored to find signs of life amid the rubble of Monday's earthquakes and aftershocks that laid waste to a wide swath of Turkey and Syria.
In addition to 12,873 people killed in Turkey, the country's disaster management agency said more than 60,000 have been injured. On the Syrian side of the border, 3,162 have been reported dead and more than 5,000 injured.
The total of 16,000-plus fatalities, the largest worldwide for an earthquake event in more than a decade, is expected to rise. Experts says the survival rate in an incident of this magnitude is below 25% after 72 hours, and the frigid temperatures make the chances even slimmer.
Dale Buckner, CEO of McLean, Virginia-based Global Guardian, said his international security firm has clients in the region, and his team is helping with medical evacuations, transportation and the delivery of food, water and power supplies in and around the earthquake zone. It will take months to stabilize the region and years to recover from the disaster, he said.
"The size and scale of the destruction our team has witnessed is difficult to describe," Buckner told USA TODAY. "Some infrastructure will never be replaced. The damage is so widespread it will be uninhabitable for years to come."
That assessment stands in sharp contrast with Wednesday's vow by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that homes in the 10 most affected provinces would be rebuilt within a year and that his government "will not leave any of our citizens uncared for."
Elections are scheduled for May 14.
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►Twitter CEO Elon Musk said he was told by Turkey's government that access to the platform would be restored soon after complaints it had been restricted. Some trapped survivors have used Twitter to communicate with rescuers and loved ones, while others have tweeted complaints about the response.
►A 13-year-old boy was rescued from the rubble on Wednesday, 55 hours after the quakes first struck, Turkish rescuers said. The boy was saved in Kahramanmaras, the quakes' epicenter, after three hours of intense digging.
►Turkish Airlines said it evacuated 19,050 people from the region Tuesday and planned to evacuate 30,000 more Wednesday. Airline official Yahya Ustun urged residents to "wait their turn ... calmly."
►More than 40,910 people had been injured in Turkey, according to the nation's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority.
►Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu blamed the devastation on Erdogan's two-decade rule, saying he had not prepared the country for a disaster and accusing him of misspending funds.
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Snowfall in Syria compounds disaster
Fresh snowfall in Syria on Wednesday has compounded the disaster in the region, the United Nation's top humanitarian official in the country said.
"We have already a very vulnerable situation; people (are) already vulnerable, not capable of taking care of themselves…and all of a sudden comes this," said El-Mostafa Benlamlih, U.N. resident coordinator for Syria.
Benlamlih said in a video briefing Wednesday that 10.9 million people in Syria have been affected by the earthquake across five northwestern governorates.
About 100,000 people in Aleppo are believed to be homeless, Benlamlih added. But he stressed that while 30,000 have found shelter in schools and mosques, the remaining 70,000 "have snow, they have cold and they are living in a terrible situation."
Erdogan defends disaster response
Most of Turkey sits above major fault lines and the country is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Close to 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.
Erdogan on Wednesday inspected relief efforts in Kahramanmaras province, where Monday's two powerful quakes and aftershocks were centered. Damage was spread over at least nine other provinces, affecting more than 13 million of his nation's 86 million people.
Erdogan toured a tent city and pledged that no one would "be left in the streets." He acknowledged the response had started slowly but dismissed criticism that the government needed to do more.
"It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster," Erdogan said. "The state is working with municipalities, especially (disaster agencies) with all its means."
YOU CAN HELP: How to donate to Turkey and Syria earthquake relief and recovery efforts
Finding occasional rays of hope
In the Turkish city of Adana, about 100 miles southwest of the epicenter in Kahramanmaraş, volunteer Bekir Bicer found a blue-and-yellow bird alive inside a crushed birdcage in the wreckage of a flattened 14-story building, almost 60 hours after the earthquakes hit.
"I was very happy,'' Bicer said. "I nearly cried."
Such rare instances provide hope for the loved ones of those still missing -- who are likely buried under the debris of some of the more than 5,600 buildings that have collapsed -- even though the chances of finding survivors are diminishing.
Suat Yarkan, 50, said his aunt and her two daughters lived in an apartment on the building's fourth floor. He was clinging to hope they could be rescued.
"Look at the bird. Sixty hours," he said. "It makes me feel like maybe God is helping us … I have to believe that they will recover everyone."
White helmets mourn their own, seek funding help
The British government pledged more funding for Syria's White Helmets volunteer civil defense organization. The opposition-controlled White Helmets were organized in 2014 during the Syrian civil war to help with civilian evacuations and rescue operations after bombings in rebel areas. Now the group has been pressed into earthquake relief duty. At least four of its own members died in the quake, the group said Wednesday.
"We still hear the cries and moans of those trapped under the rubble asking for help, thousands of victims and thousands of missing people," the group said in a Twitter post. "Please help in our response to save more lives by donating."
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Winter cold adds to woes of those left homeless
The cold made life miserable for those who lost their homes. Many survivors have had to sleep in cars, outside, or in government shelters with temperatures dipping into the low 20s.
"We don't have a tent, we don't have a heating stove, we don't have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold," said Aysan Kurt, 27. "We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold."
International teams join thousands of local first responders
Search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel, and aid pledges have poured in from around the world. Searchers from France, Spain and Russia were among foreign teams tweeting photos of their efforts on the ground. The U.S. sent two teams of about 80 persons each.
But the scale of destruction from the 7.8 magnitude quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense - and spread so wide, including in areas isolated by Syria's ongoing civil war - that millions are still waiting for help.
Adana restaurateur provides food, shelter
A kebab restaurant owner in southern Turkey's Adana province opened three restaurants for survivors of the earthquakes. He told the Turkish news agency Anadolu he believed it was the safest place for people left homeless.
"It was raining," Salih Oral said. "We saw people waiting in their cars, sitting on the pavement or just milling around without a place to go."
Oral said he has been providing free food, soup and tea to people whose homes were damaged or destroyed. Oral said he also is sending food to nearby cities affected by the quakes.
Didem Incekuran, 24, has been staying at the restaurant since Monday, saying she was thankful to Oral.
"We don't want to go back home yet. We feel safe here," Incekuran said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Turkey earthquake live updates: Death toll surpasses 16,000