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Turkey and Syria quakes prompt fresh worries about Istanbul's building safety

As Turkey's leaders promise a swift start to reconstruction efforts in the earthquake zone, attention is also turning to Istanbul — and whether Turkey's largest city has done what it can to be ready for a major quake.
Chris McGrath
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As Turkey's leaders promise a swift start to reconstruction efforts in the earthquake zone, attention is also turning to Istanbul — and whether Turkey's largest city has done what it can to be ready for a major quake.

ISTANBUL — The death toll continues to rise from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria. As Turkey's leaders promise a swift start to reconstruction efforts in the earthquake zone, attention is also turning to Istanbul — and whether Turkey's largest city has done what it can to be ready for a major quake.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long spoken of the need to be ready for natural disasters. A year after an earthquake hit Izmir and surrounding areas in 2020, Erdogan reportedly boasted that the government had been with the people "from the very first minute."

He added, "Praise God, our country has the fastest, most effective and practical disaster response system in the world."

Rejecting criticism, charging critics

Erdogan's government has been stung by criticism about its initial response to this month's earthquake, with prosecutors launching an investigation into a lawyer who tweeted "where is the state?" in criticism of the response. The lawyer was reportedly charged with "insulting the state."

Erdogan has promised reconstruction will start as soon as the rubble is cleared away, and he aims to have the earthquake zone rebuilt within a year.

A prominent Turkish seismologist, Naci Gorur, responded that seismic studies of the region should be completed before any reconstruction starts.

Istanbul architect Korkut Ozgenler says his first reaction upon seeing the scenes of devastation this month was a deep sadness, followed by anger.

"It's very sad, and for me as an architect, seeing all those buildings collapsed and people under the rubble, it's especially – it made me, actually, furious," he says. "And the question comes to Istanbul: is Istanbul vulnerable?"

Ozgenler's answer is yes. He says improvements put on the books after a 1999 Aegean earthquake killed more than 17,000 people were a good start — but much more needs to be done.

"At the moment, people are sad, psychologically everyone is, like, even more scared that this could happen very soon in Istanbul as well – rightly so – and because so many buildings are at risk," he says.

Istanbul's mayor has said some 90,000 buildings in Istanbul could be at risk if a major earthquake hits the city. (In 2017, an architects' union said 2 million buildings in Istanbul were unsafe).

Not only contractors at fault

Critics have pointed to so-called "zoning amnesties" given to contractors. These allowed buildings to be constructed more quickly, in part by skipping safety measures intended to strengthen a building's capacity to resist an earthquake.

But Ozgenler would like to nominate another group which he holds even more responsible: the buildings' owners and tenants.

He says many of the buildings that toppled over this month were left with their upper stories basically intact. What was destroyed were the ground floors, often used for stores and other commercial properties.

He says many acted to increase their commercial space by knocking out load-bearing walls or columns, compromising the structural integrity of the building.

"They have blood on their hands, and that makes me really, really angry when I see this," Ozgenler says. "I mean, you don't need an earthquake of 7.7 [magnitude] to see a building ... fall over like this, if there's no walls in the building, no core."

Even if building owners or tenants do bear some blame for weakening buildings in earthquake-prone areas, analyst Sinan Ulgen at Istanbul's Center for Economics and Foreign Policy says ultimately it's up to the state to regulate that — to enforce the building codes on the books.

Political implications?

Ulgen says there will undoubtedly be a backlash of some kind against the government's initial quake response, which may be why Erdogan has already pledged to provide shelter for all of the estimated 20 million people affected by the quake who need housing within a year.

This is all happening just weeks before elections were expected to be called, possibly to be held in May. It remains to be seen whether elections will be possible, given the challenges of holding a vote in heavily damaged cities in the earthquake zone.

As for the political implications, Ulgen says, "There are no poll numbers to show the political impact of the disaster, but ultimately it will be a handicap for the government."

Noting that the elections are a constitutional obligation, he says ultimately it will be up to President Erdogan to decide if he wants to delay the vote, but doing so would require parliamentary approval that would need opposition support, which he sees as highly unlikely.

Meanwhile, the six-party opposition coalition has yet to announce its own presidential candidate, adding one more layer of uncertainty to where Turkey goes from here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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