Buildings could fall again

When Muhammet Alptekin found himself out on the street after a powerful earthquake destroyed his home in the Turkish city of Izmit 10 years ago, he was happy to see that his son also escaped unharmed. But then he realised his wife Bahar was still trapped in the pile of rubble that had been their home.

ISTANBUL // When Muhammet Alptekin found himself out on the street after a powerful earthquake destroyed his home in the Turkish city of Izmit 10 years ago, he was happy to see that his son also escaped unharmed. But then he realised his wife Bahar was still trapped in the pile of rubble that had been their home. Mrs Alptekin was stuck between pieces of concrete, metal pipes, building iron and roof tiles, but survived thanks to a little cavity that had formed when the building crashed down around her. "I am here," she answered when her husband called her name.

Thousands of homes collapsed in less than a minute when the quake struck shortly after 3am on August 19, 1999. Ms Alptekin was among the lucky ones: Her husband was able to pull her out alive. But all around her was death and destruction. Nearly 20,000 people died in the quake, many more were made homeless. The quake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, caught Turkish authorities totally unprepared. Bulent Ecevit, the prime minister at the time, told the nation in a TV address that damage to streets and communication networks had hampered relief efforts in the critical first two days after the disaster - although news crews had been managing to broadcast from the quake zone.

While international disaster relief teams reached the area a day after the quake, the Turkish state was still struggling to get a co-ordinated relief effort underway. In the absence of an effective search and rescue programme in Ankara, the public was thankful for the influx of foreign helpers. "We are not alone," one newspaper headline said. Although nearly all of Turkey's territory is prone to earthquakes, there were no rescue plan in place, and many buildings had been constructed in violation of building regulations. Faced with a growing wave of criticism after the quake, ministers made things worse by appearing detached and even arrogant.

Osman Durmus, the health minister, was quoted as telling survivors complaining about poor sanitary conditions in the quake zone that they should use lavatories of mosques and should take a dip into the sea of they wanted a bath. After the quake, tens of thousands of people remained in makeshift shelters while damaged buildings were torn down and new houses were built. Now, more than 10 years after the catastrophe, the region has recovered, but critics say that the judiciary has failed to prosecute those responsible for the shoddy building work that caused many preventable deaths.

Planning for future quakes has also been criticised as inadequate. Although schools now prictice earthquake drills, and although some public buildings have been strengthened, some experts believe more needs to be done given the danger of new ruptures along the North Anatolian Fault, a tectonic fault line. Scientists agree that Istanbul, a city of 12 million, is likely to be hit by a major earthquake at some point in the next few decades. Studies have predicted that 20,000 to 60,000 people could die.

Despite this, officials admit that 85 per cent of buildings in the capital have been built without proper permits. According to the chamber of construction engineers,only one per cent of hospitals and seven to eight per cent of school buildings in Istanbul have been strengthened against a possible earthquake since 1999. tseibert@thenational.ae

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