In the summer of 1999, the city on the bosphorus looked as if it had slipped into the water. Houses lie next to ships, boats next to bridges, the water brown and no longer the famous blue of the bosphorus. In the center of istanbul, minarets are collapsing like bullets into apartments.
Apartment buildings collapse, people jump from balconies. For 45 seconds the earth sways, no, jumps in august 1999 in the rough area of istanbul. Saturday is 20 years ago. It was one of the most devastating earthquakes of the century. The strong was 7,4.
18.373 people died in the region at the time, according to official figures, and around 24.000 were injured. A report by the istanbul chamber of civil engineers states that in the coarse area 140.000 buildings completely collapsed and 330.000 houses and 50.000 service buildings were damaged.
Istanbul is one of the most earthquake-prone cities in the world. But the chairman of the chamber of civil engineers, nusret suna, warns that even today it is not prepared for another major quake. At the same time, the danger is growing.
There have been many major quakes in the past, but the epicenters in the current earthquake cycle are moving closer and closer to istanbul along the north anatolian fault line. The more than 1,000-kilometer-long fault, in which two coarse earth plates collide, runs right through northern turkey and "has been ripped open from east to west in a series of quakes since 1939 – like a friction seal," says heidrun kopp of the kiel-based geomar helmholtz center for ocean research.
During the major quake 20 years ago, the epicenter was still almost 100 kilometers east of istanbul. This time, researchers expect it could be under the marmara sea – just outside istanbul. Heidrun kopp published a study as recently as july that talks about significant tectonic stresses under the marmara sea. They were enough to trigger a 7.1 to 7.4 magnitude quake, she and her colleagues wrote in the journal "nature communications".
There is an urban renewal project for earthquake safety, but the government has used it primarily to make a profit and boost the construction sector, criticizes nusret suna of the chamber of civil engineers. He paints an apocalyptic picture: an estimated one million buildings in istanbul are unsafe.
The afad disaster management agency won’t comment on the current state of planning, but they know of the danger. A report by the DHA news agency in the summer of 2018 had described the results of a workshop with the city administration. The head of afad’s earthquake department is quoted as saying that in the event of a 7.6 magnitude quake in istanbul alone, 26.000 to 30.000 people could be killed. Around 2.4 million people were left without a roof over their heads. Open spaces where people can gather have been prepared.
But it is precisely the assembly areas that are a point of contention. In the eyes of the chamber of civil engineers there are far too few. Many areas have been built over, and afad also designates playgrounds and small grassy areas as gathering places, says nusret suna. But people there could not hold out for days or weeks. "Where to sleep? Are they supposed to stand upright in these gardens??"
Making istanbul completely earthquake-proof could take 15 to 20 years, estimates suna. He calls the years since the 1999 quake "lost". Depending on the structure, buildings had to be strengthened or demolished. For new construction, he calls for more effective controls because some contractors or owners skimped on materials. Other buildings were accepted by the authorities as safe, he says – and then the owner illegally added floors on top of them. Responsibility lies with the government, says suna. The tenants are powerless. "They raise their hands high in the air and pray to god."
Experts like heidrun kopp say it’s impossible to predict when the next quake will strike. When it comes with the fury that was feared, the city is allowed to be hit harder than in 1999. Not only because the epicenter is then in front of the house. At that time, around 10.8 million people lived in istanbul. Today, there are an estimated 16 million.