The prospect of major disaster

Japan was prepared. As far as you can be prepared for an earthquake, Japan was prepared. The buildings swayed like they were supposed to so as not to collapse, the people didn’t panic but knew what to do and what not to do. And still, the disaster is tremendous. That makes it so hard to imagine what could happen in Istanbul if the expected earthquake were to hit the city. Expected? Yes, according to every expert, Istanbul, built just north of the North Anatolian Fault underneath the Marmara Sea, will probably be hit by a major earthquake (7 on the Richter scale at least) within three decades at the latest.

In Japan, a man jumped out of a window during the earthquake. And he jumped for the second time when an after-shock hit. He was a Turk. He survived. Somehow, it’s the first impulse that Turks have: jump. It has to do with the fact that many houses are not earthquake-proof, but also with a total lack of information about the do’s and don’ts during an earth quake. In Turkey, when moderate earthquakes hit some village or town, sometimes most of the deaths are from people jumping out of a window in panic.

It proves what is often said: it’s not the strength of the earthquake that defines how many victims are to be mourned, but the extent to which the affected area is prepared for it. How solid are the buildings? How well informed is the population? How seriously do they take the risk?

That theory is only partly valid, as we also see in Japan. You can prepare for an earthquake, but for huge, powerful waves flooding the country? Istanbul does have the advantage that many parts of the city are high above sea level, but again, many houses wouldn’t hold up against the first wave coming in. I’m not an expert of course, but imagine huge waves around this city, with the seas north and south of the city not directly linked to an ocean where the waves can go to and lose height and intensity. The pictures in my imagination are apocalyptic and horrifying.

A bad, bad perspective for Istanbul. My colleagues at the office and I talked about the issue. Is the building we work in safe? It’s guaranteed to be so, but honestly, we can’t believe it really is. Our office is on the ninth floor, the highest floor of the building. It’s an illegal floor, like many top floors in the city. Just add one more floor, rent it out, earn some extra money. When it rains heavily, men have to climb on to the roof to do ad hoc repairs to prevent the rain from coming in. How can this ninth floor withstand an earthquake when it can’t even withstand rain?

Did that lead to any action? Do we have any necessary stuff in the office, like helmets, food stocks, flash lights? No we don’t. And it’s strange, but the seriousness of it all just doesn’t sink in. We talk about it and then go back to what we were doing. And it’s like that with practically every Istanbullite. At the end of the day, on the boat going home, a few large waves rocked the boat. All of the passengers knew what was on everybody’s mind, everybody felt the atmosphere. But do we take action? No we don’t. Not even after the earth quake that hit an area close to Istanbul in 1999 in which many people were killed.

Partly we can blame the municipality, because they give the worst example of all. Like so often in Turkey, on paper things are much better organised than in practice. There are for example certificates available for quake-proof buildings. Of about 15,000 public buildings in Istanbul (like schools and hospitals) only about 250 are definitely secure, many others have the official papers but are in practice not safe. There is no national earthquake education program to teach kids what to do, nobody telling people not to jump out of windows when the earth starts trembling. Nothing. Zero.

But blaming the authorities is just too easy. We, the people of Istanbul, could also urge the authorities to do something. We don’t. We do nothing. There is something that makes us passive. And I can’t figure out what it is. Why, why does the prospect of major disaster not hit us at all?

3 replies
  1. Carol McKee Marque
    Carol McKee Marque says:

    I think Japan tells it all. Like San Francisco, my current city of residence, Japan was quite prepared. San Franciscans know what to do. I’ve been through what we call the little big one in 1989 when the Bay Bridge collapsed- a 7.1. Each time there is a big earthquake we learn, make adjustments and make more earthquake preparations. Japan was prepared but nothing can prepare humans for a tsunami of that sort. The answer really is: if you are afraid of dying of an earthquake induced tsunami in a notorious earthquake zone, do not live on the coast. Don’t allow nuclear power plants on a major fault. Period. People that live on earthquake faults seem also to possess a little bit of denial. Oh I’ll be okay. Or, it’s probably not going to happen for a few decades, I’ll worry about it then. I’m guilty of this.
    So it just so happens I’m moving to Istanbul for a year or more this August. Of course I can’t say I’m worried about earthquakes. Not after living in San Francisco for 34 years. I’ll be living in Atasehir and the buildings, from what I’ve read are up to code. The buildings in Japan fared well, so that eases my mind. The thing is, I think I stand more of a chance of dying of a car accident or cancer than an earthquake. Do I worry about car accidents and cancer? Not really.
    I’m not advocating passivity. I’m merely answering your question about why people aren’t more proactive about disaster preparation.
    Thanks for your blog. I’m enjoying it.

  2. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    The Turkish “take care of me” way…always passive. Didn’t you ever hear a Turk explain why AKP is powerful…because AKP actually does things, they actually work. It doesn’t matter what they do, or who they do it for…they just do something, anything! But this passive way will ultimately lead to a city in ruins from an earthquake and a dictator leading the masses. It’s almost like that’s what they want. A Turkish friend once told me that this attitude is engrained in the Turk from Ottoman times…to be a pupil, not a citizen.
    I would love to bring JFK back from the grave just to share one comment with Turkey: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

  3. Pat Yale
    Pat Yale says:

    Actually, as I understand it, Beyoglu Belediyesi has issued some written advice to residents. A friend said he reread it after a quake and it said to put all valuables together in one place so could be grabbed quickly in emergency. He did this. A few days later he was burgled. The burglars were also able to grab all his valuables quickly!

    Another friend’s daughter has had to move school while her original one is being strengthened. I don’t think we should underestimate the sheer enormity of what has to be done to make good the bad work from the past which certainly doesn’t excuse any shonkiness in new-builds. But I live in front of a giant fairy chimney that could fall down any time. Do I move away? No, I don’t, even after seeing a chimney that had fallen down last year. I think it’s just how most human beings are, for better or worse.


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