It Will Make Sandy Seem Like Nothing: The Massive Quake Coming to Istanbul

The major earthquake that will inevitably strike Turkey's largest city is likely to have devastating political and humanitarian consequences.

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A portion of the Istanbul skyline. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

There's a lot to learn in the aftermath of a natural disaster, especially about your elected officials, as anyone living in New York and New Jersey can tell you. Natural disasters separate effective policies from ineffective ones because those policies are suddenly required to work, and politicians are judged by how they respond and how well they prepared.

In Istanbul, where I live, politicians are in a race against time, and time is winning by about three years. The vast city is as vulnerable to earthquakes as Los Angeles, but not as prepared. Istanbul is very close to the North Anatolian Fault, which runs beneath the Marmara Sea, and whose most significant break is said to occur every 500 years. The last time the fault broke, the city was ruined. Landmarks collapsed; thousands died; and the city walls, famous for halting invasions, were useless against floodwaters. That quake, nicknamed "the Little Apocalypse," hit in 1509, 503 years ago.

Turkey's recent history is also marked by earthquakes. In 1999 almost 20,000 people died in Izmit, about 60 miles east of Istanbul. One year ago, the southeast city of Van was devastated by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake. Both events increased panic in Istanbul, and the policies of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- like building codes and an earthquake tax -- were called into question because they had failed to mitigate damage in Van. Had they learned nothing?

Over 13 million people live in Istanbul (unofficial numbers are much higher), and relentless development has swelled the city far beyond its ancient walls. The new buildings are not necessarily safer. Ayhan Irfanoglu, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue and an expert on Turkey's earthquakes, studied collapsed buildings in Izmit and Van. The construction process, he said, was mired by unapplied building codes, poor communication, and greed. "Buildings in Istanbul are a little more vulnerable, actually," he told me. "Land is expensive, so you build as tall as you can. Land is gold in Istanbul."

On October 5, the AKP launched an urban transformation project, and it looked like definitive action. Erdogan Bayraktar, the minister of environment and urban planning, told the Hurriyet Daily News that over half of Istanbul's buildings would need to be rebuilt. The minister also had a warning for critics who say the plan has more to do with gentrification than safety: "Do not block this project."

As President Obama tours the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy, he receives praise and his poll numbers rise; when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan toured Van, he was criticized for the scope of the destruction, the slowness of aid, and the way the disaster exacerbated painful ethnic schisms. This new demolition, and the mass evictions that come along with it, could garner praise as a solid policy, or cement Erdogan's reputation as a singleminded, and ruthless, developer. Nothing reveals how popular, or unpopular, a leader really is quite like a natural disaster. And Erdogan's plan has a lot of critics.

Cihan Baysal, an expert with the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE), which advised U.N. Habitat in 2009, is one of them. Early this year, when I met with Baysal, she was pessimistic about Erdogan's commitment to safety. When it comes to gentrification, "earthquakes are used as a legitimate tool by the government," she said. She traced policies formed after the 1999 earthquake right off a cliff. "The earthquake board hadn't met once. City planning changes had been made not because of a threat, but for profit," Baysal said. "The wheels of the economy are being turned by construction."

Since demolition began, protests have filled the streets of targeted neighborhoods. Many of those losing their homes are low-income minorities who already feel disenfranchised. Some do not have official paperwork claiming ownership of their homes, and might not be entitled to payment for them. Those who are relocated to public housing complain about being on the outskirts of the city far from work. There is debate about the safety of this housing. According to Baysal, residents nickname public housing "coffin houses." But when Irfanoglu visited Van he saw these homes intact; the ugly, boxy apartment buildings are built quickly with lots of load-bearing walls.

No one knows when the earthquake will hit -- or what will happen to Turkey's politicians when it does. But a lot of research goes into hypothesizing. Cenk Yalitrak, a geology professor at Istanbul Technical Universtiy, and Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an international relations professor at Bilgi University, have spent years collecting evidence of a future for Turkey in which a massive earthquake destroys Istanbul and the country's economy, introduces disease without the means to treat it, traps residents, and instantaneously shifts political dynamics in the region for the worse by turning Turkey "from a model to a major recipient of foreign aid."

There is no feasible evacuation plan, and green spaces that could be used for disaster relief are being steadily consumed by development projects. The issue is not the safety of the houses, but the number of them. Irfanoglu expressed similar worries at the end of our conversation, after a barrage of his own alarming facts had worked him up emotionally: "Nobody knows what's going to happen, but if there is any strong shaking in Istanbul you should get out. Because if you survive the earthquake, it would be very difficult to get out. It's our worst nightmare. Sometimes I look at the news and I just hope there's nothing about an Istanbul earthquake." Yaltirak was more succinct: "They want Pompeii to grow."

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.