20 years after deadly quake, Istanbul ill-prepared for ‘Big One’

Old and newly constructed buildings at Alibeykoy district in Istanbul. (AFP)
Updated 16 August 2019

20 years after deadly quake, Istanbul ill-prepared for ‘Big One’

  • The collapse of a residential building in Istanbul this February, in which 20 people were killed, renewed fears about the solidity of the city’s infrastructure.

ISTANBUL: Twenty years after a devastating earthquake ravaged the northwest of Turkey, Istanbulites live with the knowledge that another “Big One” is unavoidable, and that their city of 16 million is not prepared.
On Saturday, Turkey will mark the anniversary of the 7.4-magnitude quake that hit Izmit — around 100 kilometers east of Istanbul — on August 17, 1999, killing at least 17,400 people, including 1,000 within the economic capital of the country.
The question for seismologists is not if another earthquake will hit Istanbul, which lies along the volatile North Anatolian tectonic plate. The only question is when.
Sukru Ersoy, a specialist at the city’s Yildiz Technical University, estimates it could come within the next decade.
“In the worst case, the quake could reach a magnitude of 7.7,” he told AFP. “Is Istanbul ready for that? Sadly not.”
According to him, such a quake would destroy thousands of buildings, leaving a “terrifying” number of dead and paralysing Turkey’s economic and tourist hub.

The former capital of the Ottoman empire has suffered many earthquakes through its long history. In 1509, the city was shaken so badly that the Ottoman authorities referred to the incident as “the little apocalypse.”
Since then, a rapid-response unit — the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority — has been created, quake-proof hospitals have been built, and systems to cut gas lines installed.
But experts say the main problem is that Istanbul has tens of thousands of poorly-built buildings, thrown up during the construction boom of recent decades with little regulatory oversight.
The 1999 quake showed how many buildings had been built using dodgy cement made from unsuitable sand dredged from the sea.
“There was a moment of reflection just after the 1999 earthquake,” said Nusret Suna, head of the Chamber of Building Engineers for Istanbul. “But with time, fatalism took over again. People said ‘It’s destiny’ and people moved on to other things.”
Although regulations have become stricter in the past 20 years, the collapse of a residential building in Istanbul this February, in which 20 people were killed, renewed fears about the solidity of the city’s infrastructure.
There have been efforts to rebuild “at-risk” buildings in sturdier fashion, but Suna said a much bigger mobilization is needed to reach basic levels of earthquake-proofing.
The new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, has vowed to fast-track a plan, including efforts to provide more green spaces — notoriously lacking in the city — that can be used to gather survivors.
In theory, each neighborhood is supposed to have an assembly point for this purpose, but many have been lost under new parkings and shopping centers.
Without rapid changes, Istanbul risks being plunged into “real chaos” by a serious quake, warned Recep Salci, head of the non-government Search and Rescue Association, which was a key first-responder in 1999.
“We cannot prevent an earthquake, but we can enormously reduce its consequences,” he said, citing the examples of Japan and Chile, which are similarly vulnerable but have taken radical measures to brace themselves.
Suna, at the chamber of engineers, said it would take 15 to 20 years to fully prepare Istanbul.
“Since 1999, 20 years have been lost. But we must not be discouraged from the task.”


Hariri and Aoun trade blame as prime minister candidate's withdrawal plunges Lebanon further into crisis

Updated 17 November 2019

Hariri and Aoun trade blame as prime minister candidate's withdrawal plunges Lebanon further into crisis

  • Withdrawal of Mohammad Safadi narrowed the chances of creating a government needed to enact urgent reforms
  • Lebanon's bank staff said they would continue a nationwide strike on Monday

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister blasted the party of the country’s president on Sunday after the withdrawal of a top candidate to replace him plunged the country into further turmoil.

Mohammad Safadi, a former finance minister, withdrew his candidacy late on Saturday, saying it was too difficult to form a "harmonious" government with broad political support.

Safadi was the first candidate who had appeared to win some consensus among Lebanon's fractious sectarian-based parties since Saad Hariri quit as prime minister on Oct. 29, pushed out by sweeping protests against the ruling elite.

The withdrawal of Safadi narrowed the chances of creating a government needed to enact urgent reforms.

Reflecting the brittle political climate, President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) accused Hariri of undermining Safadi's bid in order to keep the job for himself.

"Saad (al-Hariri) is delaying things with the goal of burning all the names and emerging as the saviour," said a source familiar with the FPM's view.

A statement by Hariri's office rejected the FPM assertion as an irresponsible attempt to "score points" despite Lebanon's "major national crisis".

Faced by the worst financial strains since a 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon has pledged urgent reforms it hopes will convince donors to disburse some $11 billion pledged last year.

The unrest has kept banks shut for most of the last month. They have imposed controls on transfers abroad and US dollar withdrawals, and the pegged Lebanese pound is under pressure on an informal market.

Safadi became the presumed front-runner for prime minister after a meeting between Hariri, a Sunni politician, and Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, according to political sources and Lebanese media, but no political force later endorsed him.

Lebanon's prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, according to its sectarian power-sharing system.

Protesters who have filled the streets since Oct. 17 hit out at the choice of Safadi, a prominent businessman and longtime politician they said was part of the elite they sought to oust.

"We are in a deadlock now. I don't know when it will move again. It is not easy," said a senior political source. "The financial situation doesn't tolerate any delay."

A second political source described efforts to form a new government as "back to square one."

Safadi's withdrawal leaves the powerful, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies with even fewer options unless they push for a close Sunni ally, a scenario that would likely reduce the chances of Lebanon winning international support. Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and many other countries.

Hezbollah and Amal, along with Aoun, a Maronite Christian, have sought for Hariri to return as premier while including both technocrats and politicians in a new cabinet.

But Hariri, who is aligned with Gulf Arab states and the West, has said he will only return as prime minister if he is able to form a cabinet composed entirely of specialists capable of attracting the international support.

Global ratings agency S&P flashed the latest warning on Lebanon's debt-saddled economy on Friday, lowering its foreign and local currency sovereign credit ratings deeper into junk territory to 'CCC/C' from 'B-/B'.

Lebanon's bank staff said they would continue a nationwide strike on Monday that has kept banks shut. The strike is over safety fears as depositors demand access to their money. Union members are set to meet on Monday to discuss a security plan to keep branches safe.