ISTANBUL // Earthquakes can be fun; at least they are if you are 10 years old and the tremor is really the shaking room of Emre Akgun's earthquake centre in Istanbul. "No," shouted the girls and boys from a class of the Mahmut Sevket Pasa primary school in Turkey's metropolis this week when asked if they were afraid of earthquakes after attending Mr Akgun's short training course. "You have to protect your head," one girl said. "You have to keep away from things that can fall down," a boy added as the chatting and laughing children filed out of the Bilim Merkezi, or Science Centre, of the Sisli district on the European side of Istanbul.
Mr Akgun, 24, operates what for many visiting students is the main attraction of the centre. What looks like a normal kitchen with a dining table and some chairs mounted on a stage can be shaken violently to simulate earthquakes of a strength of about five on the Richter scale. "Everybody is waiting for it," Mr Akgun said with a smile. During a simulation, some schoolchildren are put on the kitchen stage while others watch from an auditorium. The children are taught basic survival techniques, such as getting down on the floor and covering their heads. "You don't run out of the house during a quake, you stay where you are," Mr Akgun said.
He also tells children about the importance of having an "earthquake bag" at home, containing water, blankets and other supplies, and about the geological causes of earthquakes. Scientists agree that at some point during the next few decades, Istanbul, a city of 12 million people, is likely to be hit by a major earthquake. Ten years after the last big quake killed almost 20,000 people in a region close to the city, many experts say Istanbul is still ill-prepared for the "big one".
Istanbul lies close to a tectonic fault line known as the Northern Anatolian Fault, which runs from Turkey's north-eastern region towards the Sea of Marmara in the north-west of the country. There have been several major tremors along that line in recent decades, among them the most devastating earthquake in modern Turkish history, which killed about 39,000 people in the eastern city of Erzincan in 1939.
Since then, scientists have recorded a series of quakes moving west. The quake of 1999, which centred around Izmit, an industrial town about 100 kilometres south-east of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara, was also due to tensions that had built up along the fault line. Many experts predict that the next big earthquake will be even closer to Istanbul; at its closest point, the fault line runs about 20 kilometres west of the city through the Sea of Marmara.
"Every day we get a day closer" to a major earthquake, Ahmet Mete Isikara, Turkey's most prominent earthquake scientist, said this month, according to Turkish media reports. "The probability of this earthquake occurring between the years 2010 and 2014 is high." Although the danger is real, critics say authorities and Istanbulites have been slow in preparing the city for a major quake. Mr Akgun's earthquake room is one of only two in Istanbul. Many streets that are designated as routes for emergency services are routinely blocked by parked cars.
Sabri Ozkan Erbakan, a senior official of Turkey's housing ministry, said last week 85 per cent of buildings in Istanbul had been erected without the proper permits. According to the chamber of construction engineers in Istanbul, only one per cent of hospitals and only seven to eight per cent of school buildings in Istanbul have been strengthened against a possible earthquake since the quake of 1999. Studies have predicted that 20,000 to 60,000 people could die in a major earthquake in Istanbul.
Prof Isikara, a former head of Turkey's Seismological Institute, has been campaigning for better building standards for years. He said some apartment houses that were destroyed in earlier quakes turned out to have been built by workers without proper training or even basic knowledge of construction work and not by professionals. "Unfortunately, this is the consequence when melon-peddlers and barbers build houses," he said. People in Turkey had to adapt to the danger.
Mr Akgun of the Science Centre in Sisli agreed. "Not enough is being done. Many houses will collapse during an earthquake." But he also said he had noticed that more schoolchildren that come to his training courses were well informed about the dangers. "They have earthquake drills in schools now. The younger generation knows more" about the danger. That difference between young and old was apparent on a street outside the Science Centre, where a group of workers was fixing the pavement. "We don't do much in the way of preparation [for an earthquake], because we work all day. And nobody knows when the quake may come," said Orhan Yilmaz, one of the workers.
Mr Yilmaz said he was in the city of Duzce in north-eastern Turkey during a quake in late 1999, when nearly 1,000 people died. "Buildings were shaking like that," he said, moving his hands from side to side. Asked if he was afraid of an earthquake hitting Istanbul, Mr Yilmaz said he was. "I am afraid because I already lived through one. The only people who are not afraid are those who have never seen one."