x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkey still not ready for next big earthquake

Ten years on, Turkey is marking the anniversary of its worst natural disaster in decades with commemorative meetings and speeches.

The city of Adapazari was among the worst affected by the earthquake that hit Turkey on August 17, 1999.
The city of Adapazari was among the worst affected by the earthquake that hit Turkey on August 17, 1999.

ISTANBUL // For Erdinc Ucar, as for many other Turks, the horrors of the early morning hours of August 17, 1999, are present until this day. "There was a lot of shaking, and a lot of fear," Mr Ucar, the deputy mayor of the town of Cinarcik on the southern shores of the Sea of Marmara, about 70km south of Turkey's metropolis Istanbul, said in a telephone interview last week. "It is impossible to forget that." At 03.02am that warm August night, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck the region around Cinarcik with devastating force. The quake, which lasted for about 40 seconds and had its epicentre east of Cinarcik, flattened thousands of buildings and killed nearly 20,000 people. Many died in their beds as their poorly built houses collapsed. The quake was felt as far away as Ankara, almost 300km to the east. Ten years on, Turkey is marking the anniversary of its worst natural disaster in decades with commemorative meetings and speeches in towns that were destroyed that night and have since been rebuilt. But as people remember the destruction and the loved ones they lost in the quake, there is also anger and criticism. Some of the several hundred thousand people made homeless by the quake are still living in makeshift shelters. Only days before the tenth anniversary of the quake, police clashed with a group of angry earthquake victims in a housing complex in the city of Izmit, about 100km east of Cinarcik. According to media reports, they were protesting against plans to let bureaucrats live in the complex, called "Saddam Houses" because the former Iraqi ruler donated the money to erect them in 1999. Ten people were arrested in the brawl. Relatives of victims and the media also accuse the authorities of failing to draw the necessary lessons and of risking the death of many more people in a possible new quake. Experts say the Northern Anatolian Fault Line, which triggered the 1999 quake and subsequent tremors, is likely to produce more earthquakes in the coming years and decades. Most of Turkey's territory is earthquake-prone. For people in the Cinarcik region, fears of a new hit are never far away. "Even the tiniest thing brings it all back," Mr Ucar said in reference to a number of smaller tremors that have been felt in the town since 1999. After a middle-sized earthquake measuring 4.8 in March last year, many people in Cinarcik and other towns and cities in the region spent the night on the streets because they thought a bigger one might follow. Mr Ucar said authorities in Cinarcik had made sure that new buildings in the town were built to withstand a strong earthquake, while existing houses were being reinforced. But the same cannot be said for Turkey as a whole, critics contend. After the 1999 disaster, 5,022 school buildings nationwide were earmarked for structural reinforcements against earthquakes, but only 276 have actually received repairs, Serdar Harp, the president of the chamber of construction engineers in Turkey's Engineers' and Architects' Union, told the Taraf newspaper. Of 2,123 hospital buildings in need of improvements, only 55 were reinforced. "Even figures by the housing ministry show that Turkey is a country gone astray", when it comes to earthquake readiness, Mr Harp said. About 40 per cent of all residential buildings in Turkey had been erected without the proper paperwork, and about half of the country's estimated 16 million residential houses needed reinforcements. The total cost for necessary improvements would be around $15bn (Dh55bn), he said. Istanbul, a city of 12 million people that lies close to the Northern Anatolian Fault Line and that could suffer severely in case of a new quake, is also lagging behind, said Ali Mufit Gurtuna, a former Istanbul mayor. He accused the government in Ankara of being "extremely uninterested" in the earthquake issue. "Officials in the government and the Istanbul municipality must not wait for new sufferings to bring the earthquake problem onto the agenda," Mr Gurtuna said, according to news reports. The judiciary is also seen as being slow to act. While some businessmen and officials were sentenced to prison terms for ignoring construction regulations designed to make sure houses can withstand an earthquake, many relatives of victims say that justice has not been done in their case. One high-profile critic is Istanbul's top prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, who lost his 19-year-old son Emre in the 1999 quake. After the death of his son, Mr Engin brought criminal charges against seven people he thinks are responsible, but proceedings were very slow and finally dropped altogether because of the statute of limitations. "Unfortunately, members of the judiciary at the time did not show the necessary sensitivity in cases involving victims of the earthquake," Mr Engin told the Sabah newspaper. But Ahmet Vefik Alp, an architect and former candidate for mayor in Istanbul, said not only the authorities were responsible for the lack of action in preparing for the next big earthquake. "Newspapers and television stations broadcast some pieces every year around the anniversary of the earthquake, there are some meetings in the region of the quake, and that's it," Mr Alp told the Star newspaper. "Then the earthquake issue is shelved until the next year." tseibert@thenational.ae