Istanbul nowhere near ready for major earthquake

A moderate earthquake measuring 5.8 caused panic in Istanbul on Thursday as residents rushed outdoors for safety, but experts say Turkey’s biggest city of some 16 million people, sitting astride a major seismic faultline, would suffer large losses of life and property due to poorly constructed buildings and lack of disaster management plans when the expected big quake does strike.

Since a major 7.4 quake hit the nearby Gulf of Izmit in 1999, killing 17,000 people, including around 1,000 in Istanbul, Turkey has become grimly aware of the fact that it is only a matter of time before the city will experience a major disaster.

Legislation adopted after the 1999 earthquake to strengthen Istanbul’s building stock helped fuel a construction boom in the city. But so much has been built that of the 470 disaster assembly points identified after the 1999 earthquake, only 77 have survived till now, the city’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, said on Thursday. The rest have been built over.

According to a circular sent by the Istanbul Governor’s Office to municipalities in February, some 400,000 buildings in Istanbul are currently at risk, while nationwide, 6.7 million residential buildings need restoration work to be ready for an earthquake. The governor’s office said an estimated 30,000 buildings could collapse in an earthquake. 

Erdal Şahan, the head of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Geophysics Engineers, said that in the past 20 years Istanbul had failed to prepare for an earthquake and that problems had even been exacerbated by the rising population and larger building stock. 

“At that time Istanbul’s population was around 10 million. Today it is close to 16 million,” Şahan said, adding that the real population was probably higher due to the large number of undocumented migrants living in the city. 

“The number of buildings under risk that have been demolished and rebuilt since the 1999 earthquake is only 50,000. Of 2.6 million buildings, only 50,000 have been transformed,” Şahan said. 

But buildings are only a part of the problem, and authorities have also failed to prepare the populace for a disaster, Şahan said. 

“Nobody knows what to do in case of an earthquake. There has been no training or studies. In the 1999 earthquake, some 10,000 people rescued each other,” Şahan said. “If those people had been trained for disasters, they could have rescued many more.”

Schools were shut down in the city on Thursday and Vice President Fuat Oktay said authorities had received notifications of damage to 55 of them. But he said only 14 schools needed detailed surveys. 

Şahan said there was confusion about what constituted an assembly point and disaster shelter area. That became apparent when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday there were tens of thousands assembly points in Istanbul.

“The 77 means sheltering areas, meaning places where tents can be set up, that those are places suitable for mobile hospitals,” Şahan said. “What they call assembly points are tiny green spaces. In Istanbul city centre, green space per resident is between one to 1.5 square metres. Where are you going to gather?”

In disaster management, the first 72 hours after the earthquake is crucial and the proper functioning of sewerage, electricity and water networks is important Şahan said. “Do you think that the water and sewerage networks will work after an earthquake measuring more than 6 or 7? Do you think there will be electricity? All of them could be damaged, are there any plans for them?” he asked.

In other places around the world, public buildings, sports facilities and schools are used as shelters after earthquakes. “Do you trust our public buildings? Which of them do you think are strong? In Istanbul they said they had restored most of the schools. Let’s say we found shelter in them, will the sewerage work, where will water, food, and electricity come from? Have they stocked food in those buildings? No,” Şahan said. 

Traffic would be another problem as people try to leave the city. “Everybody asks us when will a major earthquake happen. Let's say I announced that it will take place at 6 a.m. in the morning. Let’s say we announced this publicly. Will those people manage to go one kilometre away with their cars? There are no plans, no preparations for that,” Şahan said. 

The public transport system is also a problem, as required inspections have not been carried out, Şahan said. 

Esin Köymen, of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, said statistics on building stock were not accurate, while Thursday’s earthquake might have affected existing buildings. 

“After the 1999 earthquake, our communication and transportation systems collapsed. Today after a 5.8 earthquake, all phone networks were locked. The transportation system collapsed,” Köymen said. 

“The government itself announced that there were around 13 million illegal buildings in Turkey. Those buildings were included in a construction amnesty. A construction amnesty in a country that is in a seismic belt proves that the authorities do not take these things seriously. We say everyday that we are in a worse situation compared to 1999,” Köymen said.