Quake-prone Istanbul (Turkey) prepares for "Big One"

Earth Changes

October 6, 2003

By Gill Tudor

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - People remember the noise, somewhere between a whistle and a roar from deep in the earth.

"It's a unique sound, really spooky, something you've never heard before," said journalist Humeyra Pamuk, who was asleep in her Istanbul flat when the earthquake struck.

Nearly 18,000 people were killed in that quake, one of the world's worst, which hit the Izmit region of northwestern Turkey on August 17, 1999.

Istanbul, Turkey's historical and economic hub about 100 km (60 miles) to the west, was rattled to its foundations. More than 200 people were killed in the city, although compared to the main quake zone it came off lightly.

Scientists say there could well be worse to come, and four years on the city authorities have drawn up an earthquake action plan they say is the most comprehensive in the world.

"Our aim is not so much to save people from the ruins, but not to have anybody under any ruins in the first place," Istanbul Mayor Ali Mufit Gurtuna told Reuters.

"We have to act before the earthquake happens. We want to manage the risks to cut them to a minimum, even to zero."


Turkey sits at a point where three vast slabs of the earth's crust -- the Eurasian, Arabic and African plates -- grind together, scoring geological fault lines across the country.

One of these, the North Anatolian fault, runs along the northern side of Turkey and through the Sea of Marmara.

Istanbul, on the Marmara coast, has been hit by some 12 earthquakes in the past 1,500 years. Few researchers are prepared to predict when the next might come, but many say another 'Big One' could be due before long.

A study in 2000 by an international team of researchers, published in the U.S. magazine Science, argued that there was a more than 60 percent chance of Istanbul suffering a serious quake sometime in the next 30 years.

Many Istanbul residents admit they are frightened. Others are fatalistic, or mask their fear with bravado, but memories of 1999 linger.

"My nephew's house was okay, but they heard the screams of people who were buried two blocks away," said shopkeeper Naim Gulistan. "My nephew's son is really scared."

Turkish newspapers have said some 90,000 people could die and 50,000 buildings could collapse in a strong Istanbul quake.

Gurtuna plays down the reports, but he agrees that at worst those figures could become reality if no action is taken.

Istanbul city council has already taken some steps since the 1999 quake, such as strengthening schools and hospitals, reinforcing water and gas mains and upgrading rescue equipment.

But the new earthquake master plan, published in August after consultation with Japanese experts and scientists at four Turkish universities, takes a far more sweeping approach.


Every building in Istanbul -- roughly a million, street by street -- is to be assessed for earthquake resilience. Surveyors will then home in on those which look most vulnerable.

Around 50,000 are expected to attract the closest inspection. Some will be strengthened, others demolished.

Coupled with this is a legal crackdown to tighten planning and building laws, often flouted in Turkey to lethal effect. In a quake it is typically new but badly built structures that collapse, while ancient monuments remain unscathed.

Gurtuna puts the cost of implementation at $2 billion over the first five to seven years -- a steep sum, but officials say the total cost of the 1999 quake was $35 billion.

Some have criticised the plan on technical grounds.

"Even strengthening buildings will not be enough to avoid collapse...as long as buildings continue being built on plains where the ground is soft and alluvial," Professor Ilyas Yilmazer of Yuzuncu Yil University told the Turkish Daily News.

Most analysts say the real test will be implementation.

For all the fanfare of the plan's launch, few people in the district chosen for the pilot study, the wholesale clothing quarter of Zeytinburnu, seemed to have heard of it.

And everyday life can undermine even the best laid plans.