20 years after deadly earthquake, Turkey is unprepared for expected new shock

Scientists monitoring tectonic activity say there is no way to predict when and where an earthquake will strike.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Minor damage from an earthquake is seen on a street in Bozkurt, in Denizli province, western Turkey, August 8.  (AP)
Can happen anytime. Minor damage from an earthquake is seen on a street in Bozkurt, in Denizli province, western Turkey, August 8. (AP)

GOLCUK - Twenty years ago, Osman Ozkan saw dozens of his relatives die in one of Turkey’s deadliest natural disasters. He said he is concerned that disaster could strike again.

Ozkan, 52, runs a small store selling cigarettes and lottery tickets in Golcuk, a city of 160,000 on the Gulf of Izmit, approximately 100km south-east of Istanbul. Golcuk was only a few kilometres from the epicentre of a 7.4-magnitude earthquake that flattened the city and killed at least 17,000 people in the early hours of August 17, 1999.

“I was lucky because I live halfway up the hill and my house was not affected,” Ozkan said. Hs brother, sister-in-law and their two young children died that night along with thousands of other people, he said.

“Their house was right on the water and collapsed. It took us nine days to get the bodies out,” Ozkan said. He lost 29 relatives in the quake, he added.

Experts say the reasons for the 1999 earthquake — tectonic activity along the North Anatolian Fault near Golcuk, where the Anatolian Plate presses west and rubs along the Eurasian Plate — could trigger a new devastating shock. It could strike the region of Golcuk or even Istanbul, a city of 15 million people. In 1939, an earthquake on the North Anatolian Fault in Erzincan in eastern Turkey killed more than 30,000 people.

In Golcuk, important lessons from the 1999 quake, which damaged almost 300,000 buildings and left 500,000 people homeless, have been ignored, Ozkan said. New houses were built along the shoreline in the same area where dozens of apartment blocks were destroyed and where his brother died, he said.

“The same thing will happen again,” Ozkan said. “It’s not the earthquake that kills, buildings kill.”

Some people in Golcuk said they were not afraid of a new catastrophe because they were convinced that the tectonic fault lines had spent their energy in 1999 and needed time to build up the tension again. Energy “has exhausted itself here,” said Yunus Usta, an 80-year-old pensioner. “Nothing will happen for at least a hundred years.”

However, scientists monitoring tectonic activity say there is no way to predict when and where an earthquake will strike. A branch of the North Anatolian Fault runs under the Sea of Marmara, a few kilometres south of Istanbul.

“There are fault lines. There is movement. There are the quakes in history. There is energy building up, which will come out,” Haluk Ozener, director of the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Centre in Istanbul, told the Hurriyet newspaper. “I hope the earthquake will wait until we are ready.”

Istanbul is clearly not ready.

A major quake under the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul could kill up to 30,000 people, Murat Nurlu, the head of the earthquake department of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), said last year. AFAD is expecting 150,000 homeless people after such an event. The expected quake could trigger a tsunami, threatening buildings along the Sea of Marmara and along the Bosporus.

More than half of Turkey’s building stock — 13 million buildings — contravene housing regulations, Environment and Urbanisation Ministry data indicate, and many Istanbul residents worry about damage from a major earthquake. The Golcuk earthquake of 1999 killed hundreds of people in outer suburbs of Istanbul, 100km away.

Some buildings in Istanbul are dangerous even without the shock from a fault line. Last February, an apartment block in the city’s Asian part collapsed, killing 21 people.

Three floors of the eight-storey building had been built illegally but owners of the property were able to register it under an amnesty law for illegal construction that resulted in billions of dollars of revenue for the government.

The Istanbul section of Turkey’s Chamber of Construction Engineers said in a recent report that up to 10 million of Istanbul’s 15 million people lived in buildings that were not earthquake safe.

Following the building collapse, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was “scared” by the prospect of a big earthquake hitting Istanbul.

Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Istanbul this spring, said during the campaign that up to 50,000 buildings in Istanbul had to be made earthquake safe. Yildirim added that some districts of the megacity lacked free spaces, such as parks, that could serve as venues for survivors to receive emergency aid.

A strong earthquake could rupture power lines and break natural gas pipelines, leading to power blackouts and fires. Some streets in Istanbul have no-parking orders because they are marked as emergency lanes for fire trucks and ambulances in case of a natural disaster but many of the streets are routinely blocked by parked cars anyway.

Apart from the immediate disaster relief, feeding a city of 15 million people after an earthquake would be a major challenge. AFAD recommended Istanbulites should stock food for 72 hours and should pack an “earthquake bag” containing water, canned food, blankets, first aid equipment and a transistor radio.

“An earthquake can happen anytime,” Candas Tolga Isik, a columnist for the Posta newspaper, wrote earlier this month, “and afterward? After the Istanbul quake, the dead will count themselves lucky.”