Lessons from 1999 earthquake failed to help Turkey prepare for latest deadly tremor
Beyza, 52, a primary art teacher, ran into four of her pupils in the playground next to her building on February 5.
“They were very excited to see me, they told me they had prepared a surprise for my birthday the next day,” she said.
“We are neighbours, I live in the building just behind them. I would see them often, I was their favourite teacher,” she added.
Little did she know, it would be the last time she saw them.
A few hours later, a powerful earthquake shook Turkey and Syria, claiming the lives of more than 44,000 people and completely shattering the 14-storey building where Beyza’s pupils used to live.
All 92 of its residents died, including her pupils.
“They were still teenagers, they had their whole life in front of them, they could have lived if the building had met the safety regulations,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
The building was one of the few that collapsed in Adana, a city in the southern central region of Turkey and relatively spared by the disaster.
The contractor who built the structure is among dozens of people detained in a government crackdown on those allegedly involved in faulty construction practices.
Turkish authorities said that they have issued more than 100 arrest warrants in relation to quake-damaged buildings. More than 41,500 buildings collapsed or were damaged enough to be demolished, according to the Turkish Environment and Urbanisation Ministry.
“It has been reported that he used bad quality material to save cost, and that is why it collapsed,” Beyza said, staring at the empty space where the building once stood.
The site has now been mostly cleared. Only some residents’ personal belongings, a teddy bear, shoes, and a ball of yarn, are scattered here and there on the ground.
Parts of Beyza’s building crumbled in the earthquake but it did not collapse. However, the structure is not safe for her and her husband to return.
“Why are all the other ones standing? It means they have done something wrong in the construction,” said Alter, 40, a teacher and local resident.
“Of course this could have been avoided,” he added.
“I’m angry and scared. I don’t feel safe any more to go back to my own building. Engineers did perform a safety check in my apartment, but the building that collapsed also had a licence from the municipality. You can’t trust anyone any more,” he said.
‘Everyone knew’ risks
Experts interviewed by The National unanimously agreed on the human responsibility for the high death toll caused by the earthquake.
Turkey is located in a seismic hazard zone, and previously endured several earthquakes, yet authorities did not implement the required protection measures, Pelin Pinar Giritlioglu, the Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, told The National.
“Everyone knew the risks”, she said.
After the 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999 that killed more than 18,000 people, greatly affecting Istanbul and its surroundings, academics, professional chambers, and non-government organisations carried out a number of studies to prepare cities for similar disasters.
“Experts produced disaster risk reduction plans for provinces. For the region of Hatay — one of the most affected regions — risks were clearly listed, such as the absence of data on illegal structures, the [siting] of the airport on the fault line, and the absence of earthquake-resistance tests performed on buildings,” Ms Giritlioglu said.
They also recommended basic earthquake protection measures, such as emergency evacuation routes, disaster assembly areas, and open public spaces where people would be safe.
“Hatay is not unique in that case, these are almost inexistent in our cities,” Ms Giritlioglu said.
“The issue is not only structure resistance, but also the urban system as a whole. Cities were shaped by direct political decisions, without taking into account the opinions of experts and planners,” she added.
Promises not kept
After the 1999 earthquake, Turkish authorities decided to stop granting zoning amnesties, which essentially legalise illegal buildings in exchange for a fee.
Yet, in 2018, a new zoning amnesty came into effect.
“Hundreds of thousands of illegal buildings were legalised,” Ms Giritlioglu said, adding that the operation was also highly profitable for the state coffers, which collected 23 million Turkish lira.
“It was said at the time that the money would be used to make cities earthquake resistant,” she said.
On top of this, authorities collected huge amounts of money from earthquake taxes introduced after the 1999 disaster — almost $36.5 billion according to Ms Giritioglu ― which were supposed to be invested in earthquake prevention.
“Looking at the extent of the destruction, we can say that these investments were not made. We don’t know where the money went, and we have no way to follow it,” she said.
Profit at the expense of safety
Experts said that profit was prioritised at the expense of safety.
After 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Turkey undertook nationwide urbanisation, spending billions of dollars on big infrastructure developments and mega projects such as skyscrapers and malls, which did not meet safety standards.
“One-storey shanty towns were gradually transformed into large buildings poorly constructed, attracting more residents from the countryside, usually more conservative, into big cities in an electoral move to shift the political balance in favour of the AKP,” said Burak Gurbuz, a professor in the faculty of economics, administrative and social science at the Istanbul Nisantasi University.
For Cihan Tugal, professor of sociology at the University of Berkley, California, the earthquake brought into question the growth model of the Turkish economy. “The whole growth burden was placed on the construction sector: authorities did not have time to regulate, they gave away tenders to build fast. It resulted in a very high growth rate until 2018,” he said.
“We are paying the price now”, he added.
Several actors have to be held accountable, he said, not only contractors, but also inspectors, engineers, ministries, and public administrations.
“Investigation is doable but whether it is going to be done, is another question,” he said.