Earthquake News

Navigating Earthquake Aftermath: Istanbul's Race Against Time for Safety

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — A cloud of dust and debris hangs in the air as an excavator methodically removes sections of concrete from an aging apartment complex. Onlookers, including former residents, observe from a distance as the construction machinery dismantles the structure. Among those watching is Ibrahim Ozaydin, a former occupant, age 30. He gazes upon the demolition with a sense of relief rather than concern, as his residence was designated unsafe by authorities several months earlier.

Ozaydin and his family were taken aback when they were informed that their building was deemed uninhabitable by the local municipality. "We opted to construct our own home," he shared with The Associated Press, while observing the dismantling of his former abode. "Rather than living in a poorly constructed dwelling, we decided to take precautions of our own."

The sight of construction machinery dismantling structures became etched in the collective memory of Turkey six months ago, following a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Kahramanmaras and other southern provinces on the morning of February 6th.

Over 50,000 lives were lost, and hundreds of thousands found themselves homeless, seeking refuge in tents and temporary accommodations. An estimated 658,000 people lost their jobs, and the material toll was substantial, with around 300,000 buildings sustaining damage. Survivors needed rescue, debris needed clearing, and structures on the brink of collapse required demolition.

However, the latest demolition scene unfolds in Istanbul, Turkey's largest urban center, a considerable distance from the earthquake-stricken area. This instance of demolition isn't part of search-and-rescue operations, but rather an effort to avert such harrowing scenarios in the future.

The building in question was solely occupied by Ozaydin and his extended family, who also owned a ground-floor shop. The family successfully relocated their shop and constructed a more robust dwelling at a different location. Yet, theirs is a unique narrative in a city where hundreds of thousands of structures are vulnerable, amidst soaring property values.

Istanbul rests atop a significant fault line, prompting experts to warn of the potential for a rupture at any given moment. In a race against time, both the national government and local administrations strive to mitigate the aftermath of the February quake while preparing their cities for potential future calamities.

Nevertheless, even preparedness can be overshadowed by political disputes: the Istanbul municipality, under the leadership of Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a prominent opposition figure to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the national government in Ankara, fail to agree on the precise number of buildings imperiled by an earthquake. Nonetheless, both acknowledge that the figure reaches the hundreds of thousands.

After the February catastrophe, the Istanbul municipality, headed by Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, earmarked 318 buildings, accommodating over 10,000 residents, for demolition.

Bugra Gokce, a municipal official overseeing the demolition efforts, stated, "Our focus lies in identifying structures at risk of collapse and reinforcing others, all in pursuit of minimizing potential loss of life."

During a heated election campaign leading to his third decade in power, Erdogan committed to constructing 319,000 new residences within the year. He attended numerous groundbreaking ceremonies, asserting that only he could restore lives and businesses.

Gokce added, "It's simple to announce the construction of numerous square meters on a hill or claim that 5,000 residences are being erected elsewhere," seemingly alluding to the national government's urban transformation endeavors. "We are engaged in those efforts as well. However, if the risk to existing city structures isn't diminished, it amounts to nothing more than urban expansion."

Experts and critics alike contend that the scale of destruction witnessed in February stemmed from the president's lax enforcement of building regulations during a construction boom that contributed to economic growth.

Ankara initiated several initiatives aimed at inspecting damaged structures both within and outside the 11 provinces affected by the earthquake. Concurrently, victims received financial aid and opportunities to resettle in public housing projects overseen by the Housing Development Administration of Turkey, or TOKI.

Although pledges flowed from both the ruling party and the opposition ahead of the May elections, those still grappling with the aftermath of the earthquake demand swifter action.

Mehmet Ali Gumus, an attorney in Hatay province, among the hardest hit by the earthquake, noted, "Hope is beginning to fade." He asserted that reconstruction efforts were absent in Hatay, and conditions in Antakya, the province's most populous city, were deteriorating rapidly.

Individuals reside in metal shipping containers and tents amidst scorching temperatures reaching up to 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit), without access to air conditioning. Residents also contend with pests and wildlife while living outdoors, Gumus reported.

The debris from collapsed structures poses a health hazard as well, as it's dumped on farmland, shorelines, and even adjacent to encampments where survivors reside. "Those around me say that we survived the earthquake, but they'll be grappling with cancer in 5-10 years due to asbestos (from the rubble)," Gumus added.

A social media post by the Hatay governor's office on July 15th asserted that asbestos levels in the debris remain safe and fall below regulatory limits. The post also included results indicating minimal asbestos content in samples collected from debris disposal sites.

While Hatay residents confront environmental challenges and other hazards, their future remains uncertain.

"Concrete statements were made before the elections, but afterward, we stopped hearing concrete plans," Gumus continued, asserting that the government hadn't committed to securing new residences for victims or strengthening existing structures. "Six months after the disaster, we should be discussing newly constructed residences, not lines of people waiting for water," he concluded.

Another Hatay resident, Bestami Coskuner, was departing for Izmir due to power outages and water shortages in his hometown. He shared, "Tap water isn't potable, but people use it for washing. Pipes burst regularly, and power is cut multiple times daily." Coskuner explained that water was rationed, and some individuals who consumed tap water suffered serious illnesses.

"In a place where drinkable water is scarce, how can you make any decisions? Even bottled water tastes bad in Hatay," he added.

Earthquake survivors have already navigated the aftermath of the disaster, the most severe cost of living crisis in decades, and a divisive election. They've had only a brief respite from politics, as Turkey heads into fiercely contested municipal elections in March. Fresh off his victory in the previous year's national elections, Erdogan is determined to regain the metropolitan cities he lost in 2019.

One of Erdogan's campaign strategies was a focus on supplying housing and assistance to earthquake-affected regions. The government ensured the provision of amenities, shelter, and financial aid to victims of the earthquake.

Perceived support for victims played a role in Erdogan's party retaining power in most of the provinces affected by the earthquake, despite accusations of negligence in enforcing building codes and inadequate emergency response by the government.

Experts like geologist and Science Academy member Professor Naci Gorur have long warned of a potential earthquake in Istanbul and other provinces. He informed the Associated Press that "the steps taken were overshadowed by those not taken," asserting that Istanbul isn't adequately prepared for a potential earthquake given the current state of structures and building codes.

Gorur described the soil in affected regions as leading to building "resonance," making it even more challenging for structures to withstand earthquakes. The quake struck in a seismically active area known as the East Anatolian fault zone, which has produced destructive earthquakes in the past, including the 7.4 magnitude quake near Istanbul in 1999, resulting in an estimated 18,000 casualties.

"We could have prepared the entire country for an earthquake, not just Istanbul, had we collaborated with the ministry to make our vulnerable provinces earthquake-resistant. If we had distanced ourselves from politics, if policies weren't left to the whims of new administrations, and if there were substantial budget and determination," Gorur stated.

He continued, "I have no doubts about the government's good intentions, but if you're going to act, do so with due diligence. Matters like these shouldn't be rushed. Instead of hastily constructing permanent structures, the focus should have been on maintaining temporary accommodations while conducting comprehensive studies for the creation of permanent structures in line with scientific principles."

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