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18 Years After Turkey's Deadly Quake, Safety Concerns Grow About The Next Big One

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 30, 2017 9:24 am

It has been 18 years since a magnitude 7.4 earthquake hit northwest Turkey, killing some 17,000 people and leaving half a million homeless. A series of government initiatives were designed to make the next big quake less deadly. But experts are warning that some of those protections have been lost in a rush to develop urban green spaces into lucrative apartment buildings and shopping malls.

Before dawn on Aug. 17, 1999, one of the fault lines running beneath the Sea of Marmara began to slip and rumble. The Eurasian plate moved against the Anatolian block for less than a minute — but the quake and severe aftershocks devastated entire neighborhoods, including in Istanbul, where hundreds died.

As rescue crews searched for survivors — and then for bodies — anger mounted at the shoddy construction and lack of disaster readiness that critics said made the quake deadlier than it should have been.

The government, then led by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and a Democratic Left Party coalition, responded: Buildings were slated for strengthening; new construction standards were set. A key part of the plan was the designation of hundreds of urban green spaces as evacuation points, where people could escape collapsing buildings and other debris in the event of another large earthquake.

But nearly 20 years later, many of those evacuation zones have vanished.

One was adjacent to Istanbul's Freedom Park, where I recently met opposition lawmaker Gursel Tekin. He spent a decade as Istanbul's deputy mayor, including during the time of the 1999 earthquake. He says as memories of the quake faded and property values soared, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister and now the president, began selling off evacuation areas to friendly developers.

Tekin points to four giant concrete and glass towers looming over the park.

"This place you see in front of us was a public green space, and after the 1999 earthquake, it was designated as a public meeting area," he says. "Unfortunately, now it is only a monstrous concrete mountain."

Tekin says hundreds of evacuation zones have been sold.

Even top government officials have acknowledged — without holding anyone accountable — that development got out of hand. Tekin has been collecting audio clips from news broadcasts of officials — including Erdogan himself — talking about the loss of open areas.

"Istanbul is no ordinary city, it is an exceptional city," Erdogan said at the opening of a mosque in Istanbul earlier this year. "But we did many wrongs to it. We made monstrous buildings and we did a great wrong to this beautiful city."

Turkey's environment minister Mehmet Ozhaseki has gone further, identifying corruption as a big part of the problem.

"Yes, there has been fraud and corruption and wrongdoing," he told reporters within the past year. "Our cities developed very fast in the last 15 years, and corrupt illegal zoning decisions benefited developers and angered the public."

Tekin notes that the Erdogan-led government is hardly the first to favor well-connected developers over the environment. He says the park we're sitting in was nearly turned into a shopping mall 20 years ago, but loud public opposition stopped that project.

Still, the current government has allowed the development frenzy to get much worse than it was before, he says, and has undone many of the earthquake readiness improvements instituted after the 1999 quake.

"In 1999, the government acted swiftly after the disaster, creating earthquake meeting areas, launching a national earthquake council and dedicating tax revenues to earthquake readiness," he says. "This was extraordinary work in one year. What did this [Erdogan] government do? Close the council, spend the tax money and give hundreds of public gathering zones to their developer friends."

The government insists it is working to improve Turkey's earthquake preparedness. But neither the deputy prime minister's office in charge of preparedness, nor Turkey's official aid groups responded to several requests for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, an architect's union says some 7 million buildings in Turkey are still unsafe, 2 million of them in Istanbul. And scientists say another large earthquake is likely in Turkey's future. If it happens, people will need someplace safe to go.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Eighteen years ago, a major earthquake hit Turkey near Istanbul, and thousands of people died. Now experts are warning that another quake might be coming, and Turkey isn't ready. For one thing, hundreds of open spaces where people have been told to gather in case of a quake have been sold to developers by the government. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On August 17, 1999, one of the fault lines running beneath northwestern Turkey began to rumble. The Eurasian Plate moved against the Anatolian block, and the 7.4-magnitude earthquake left more than 17,000 people dead and a half million homeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: As rescue crews searched for survivors and then for bodies, anger mounted at the shoddy construction and lack of disaster readiness that critics said made the quake more deadly than it should have been. Officials responded with a series of reforms. Buildings were slated for strengthening. An important part of the plan was the designation of hundreds of urban green spaces as evacuation points where people could escape collapsing buildings in the event of another earthquake. But nearly 20 years later, the old complaints are being heard again.

(CROSSTALK)

KENYON: In a park in Istanbul, I met opposition lawmaker Gursel Tekin. He spent a decade as Istanbul's deputy mayor. He says as memories of the earthquake faded and property values soared, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government began selling off these evacuation areas to friendly developers. He points to the four giant concrete and glass towers looming over the park.

GURSEL TEKIN: (Through interpreter) This place you see in front of us was a public greenspace. And after the 1999 earthquake, it was designated as a public gathering area. Unfortunately, now it's only a monstrous concrete mountain.

KENYON: Tekin says hundreds of these evacuation zones have been sold. Even top government officials have acknowledged development got out of hand without holding anyone accountable. Tekin has been collecting audio clips of officials talking about the loss of open areas generally, including this one from President Erdogan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Istanbul is no ordinary city. It's an exceptional city. But we did many wrongs to it. We made monstrous buildings, and we did a great wrong to this beautiful city.

KENYON: Environment Minister Mehmet Ozhaseki goes further, identifying corruption as a big part of the problem.

MEHMET OZHASEKI: (Through interpreter) Our cities developed very fast in the past 15 years, and corrupt, illegal zoning decisions benefited developers and angered the public.

KENYON: Opposition legislator Gursel Tekin says this government was certainly not the first to favor well-connected developers over the environment. But he says the current government allowed the development frenzy to get much worse than it was before, and he says it's undone many of the earthquake readiness improvements instituted after the last big quake.

TEKIN: (Through interpreter) In 1999, the government acted swiftly after the disaster, creating earthquake gathering areas, launching a national earthquake council, dedicating tax revenues to earthquake readiness. This was extraordinary work in one year. What did this government do - close the council, spend the tax money and give hundreds of public gathering zones to their developer friends.

KENYON: The government has said it's working to improve Turkey's earthquake preparedness, but neither the office in charge nor Turkey's official aid groups responded to several requests for comment for this story. Meanwhile, an architect's union says some 7 million buildings in Turkey are still unsafe, 2 million of them in Istanbul. And scientists say another large earthquake is probably in Turkey's future. If it happens, people will need someplace safe to go. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.