Perhaps the silver lining of the urban transformation plan is its visibility. It's a big project, befitting the scale of the impending disaster, and it announced itself with the loud crash of demolition. This could benefit the experts I spoke to, who are sometimes dismissed as alarmist. But if the project turns out to be an excuse to gentrify and does not make the city safer, earthquake experts will have an even harder time being heard. And so, presumably, will the government.
At the Kandilli Observatory, scientists monitor every earthquake in Turkey, no matter how small. They also have programs to educate Istanbulites on how to prepare themselves, by convincing them of the inevitable and then handing them a safety checklist that includes things like, "We searched for and identified non-structural hazards in our environment" and "We know how to use a fire extinguisher."
I visited the center earlier this year and spoke to Gulum Tanircan, the coordinator of Kandilli's Disaster Preparedness Education Unit. "Before 1999 there was no preparedness," she said. "Every five or 10 years we would have a serious earthquake and people complained but there was no serious precaution." I asked her what went wrong in Van. "Where to start?" she answered. She gave me the checklist.
I live in a nice apartment building in Uskudar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. It's built on solid rock, not soft soil, Tugtan told me. (These interviews can be frightening, and I sometimes fish for such reassurances.) Tanircan, though, gave me a disapproving look when I said I didn't know the age of my building. Anything built after 2000 is considered much safer. She said I should get it inspected, and I promised her that I would, but I never did.
I also never checked a single box off the checklist. I didn't "Hold a family meeting" or "Secure family heirlooms or items of cultural value that could be lost to future generations" or "fasten tall and heavy furniture [...] and other items that could kill us or our children." I did buy a flashlight, a red wind-up IKEA one, which I keep by my bed and use to read at night. Even after all this time talking to experts and reading about earthquakes, it's hard to imagine one happening; to do that feels like submitting to a life-ruining anxiety. It's tough getting people to listen, even people who ask for the information. Tanircan was right: "I don't know if people will obey these rules if they don't obey traffic rules."
Tanircan let me explore the observatory's children education room. Here, Istanbul's kids, more than 200 per week, learn about safety during and after an earthquake. They watch model buildings bend and collapse and are taught how to secure objects in a bedroom built on rollers that simulate a moderate earthquake. The simulation feels a little like being pushed much too hard on a giant swing. While you rock, an audio recording of the 1999 earthquake plays, which sounds like bombs exploding. It's the stuff of nightmares, for kids of all ages.