Preparing for Earthquakes, Istanbul Rattles Its Apartment Dwellers

To avoid crumbling buildings in the event of a catastrophe, Turkey is relocating its citizens - but not everyone likes their new digs.
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Sumer, a neighborhood in Istanbul. (Jodi Hilton)

The streets of Sumer, a small Istanbul neighborhood, are narrow and lined with smoky teashops where men play cards all day. Apartments are multi-colored, five-storied, architectural hodgepodges, the type found in most neighborhoods of Istanbul. The only thing that makes Sumer special is that its location makes it ground zero for earthquakes - and controversy surrounding the local government's plans to prepare for them.

Hasan Yildiz is in his late-forties and lives on the top floor of a dull red building. Yildiz grew up in the district of Zeytinburnu, where Sumer is located. His father moved the family to Istanbul and built their home, an illegal self-made structure called a "gecekondu," which started out as one story but soon became two, three, and five floors. Initially such structures were illegal, but in the 1970s and 80s the Turkish government legalized them. So Yildiz's father sold the house and the land to a contractor who built a five-story building. Yildiz's family got the top two floors. His wife's room is next door to that of his two daughters, and there's a small kitchen and giant living room.

Like with San Francisco or Los Angeles, scientists predict that a huge earthquake will hit Istanbul sometime in the near future, perhaps destroying two million of the city's three million apartments.

Now, the government has determined that Yildiz's apartment is unsafe. His block is part of the first wave of Zeytinburnu's relocation project. He and his family will be moved into a newly built nearby apartment, and their building will be demolished.

Yildiz is a typical neighborhood guy, with a black sweatshirt, imposing posture, and quick, demonstrative speech. He says repeatedly that he supports the urban transformation, but in exchange for his old building and land, the government has promised his family only a one-bedroom apartment.

Yildiz wonders, where will his daughters sleep? "No one is against the renovation, every one would want to live [in the new buildings]. If I went to military service, if I worked for this country, my father worked for the airport for 50 years. We work in this area, so we bought our houses here... why don't we have a right to live in such comfortable places?"

Turkey is in the middle of a debate on how its major metropolis, Istanbul, should prepare for a potential earthquake. In 1999, an earthquake struck 45 miles from Istanbul and killed 17,000 people. Like San Francisco or Los Angeles, newspapers and academics predict that a huge earthquake will hit Istanbul sometime in the near future, destroying some two million of the city's three million apartments. The neighborhood of Sumer and the district it lies in, Zeytinburnu, hug the coastline only 20 miles away from the North Anatolian Faultline, the fault that is expected to rupture and bring on a huge disaster.

Metin Ilkisik is a civil engineer who helped draft Istanbul's first "Earthquake Master Plan" in the early 2000s. After a failed attempt to demolish buildings and construct new structures in Zeytinburnu in early 2000s, Ilkisik says he understood that earthquake preparation is "not really an engineering problem. It's a social problem and economic problem."

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Jodi Hilton

Ilkisik has been working with the government to develop earthquake preparedness plans. He explains that 2,300 buildings in Zeytinburnu would collapse in an earthquake, so, Ilkisik says, it's the government's responsibility to explain to residents that they have to move out.

"Okay, the people will live in more safe buildings, but who will pay for this? The World Bank? The U.S.? Some money from Dubai? Nobody will," Ilkisik explains. "So we have to establish such an economic system so that everybody can earn. Government. Municipality. Constructors. And speculators. All these groups must earn; you must find such a system." Ilkisik pulls a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. The edges of the pages are scrawled with notes and lines bolded in orange. It's the government's new Natural Disaster Law, which passed last year.

According the World Bank, around 95 percent of Turkish land has been marked as "under threat of natural disaster." The law allows the government to survey and draft renovation plans for any neighborhood in Turkey that is under threat of any natural disaster. Once a neighborhood is declared at risk, according to the law, if a majority of owners agree their building should be demolished, the minority cannot object. In addition, the new law makes it illegal for people in an earthquake risk area to protest or go to court to stop the demolition of their homes. Zafer Alsac, the vice mayor of Zeytinburnu, believes this law strengthens the government's power to act and exemplifies democracy.

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