Turkish quake's aftermath points to half-learned lesson

At least 160 people were killed in an earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey last Thursday.

Last week's earthquake in Turkey's Bingol Province has many people asking whether lessons from an earlier seismic disaster were fully learned. The recent quake, which registered a magnitude 6.4, killed more than 160 people and injured at least 1,000. At least 80 students - mostly the sons and daughters of poor Kurdish farmers - were killed when a public-school dormitory collapsed.

On the one hand, the scenes from Bingol were completely different from the aftermath of the massive 1999 tremors, which struck near the western city of Adapazari. Rescue and relief crews arrived in Bingol almost immediately, while the Adapazari disaster was notable for the slow and poorly coordinated arrival of rescue workers. On the other hand, the images of rescue workers digging for survivors in the rubble of the totally collapsed and apparently poorly constructed dormitory - built in 2000 - seemed painfully familiar.

Rescue and relief workers said Turkey's emergency preparedness has changed dramatically in the last four years. According to Saydun Goksen, general secretary of the Turkish Search and Rescue Society, today there are some 60 nongovernmental search-and-rescue organizations working in Turkey, up from only one in 1999.

"The big difference this time, due to the fact of having so many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], was a flood to Bingol of search-and-rescue organizations," says Mr. Goksen, whose group sent 45 rescuers with sophisticated imaging and sound-detection devices to the stricken area.

Experts in the field estimate that beyond search-and-rescue groups there are now more than 500 NGOs working on earthquake-related projects in Turkey, from direct assistance for victims to earthquake safety education.

Demet Gural, executive director of the Human Resources Development Foundation, an Istanbul-based group providing assistance in areas hit by the 1999 earthquakes, says that event was a watershed moment for Turkish NGOs, bringing them both increased respect and financial support.

"Previously, many of the NGOs were seen as little associations that really were only working against the state," says Mr. Gural. "That was the general perception in the society, but now people realize that there is a lot of work that NGOs can do, that they are not an alterative public sector but that they can do things faster and implement things in a smoother way."

In Adapazari, Mehmet Duman, general secretary of the municipality that was devastated by the 1999 quakes, will be moving into new, quake-resistant offices. Since the tremors, which registered a magnitude of 7.4 and killed more than 18,000 people, Mr. Duman and his colleagues have been working out of a cluster of temporary, prefabricated offices that sit in the shadow of the old seven-story municipality building, now condemned.

The new building is built on firmer ground that is less vulnerable to seismicshifts, Duman said, and will top out at only three stories, the limit now set by local law for every structure erected in the city, located about a two-hour drive east of Istanbul.

"We are always thinking another earthquake will happen in Adapazari, so we must learn to live with the earthquake," Duman says. "When people are building their homes, we are now very strict with them. We learned from the earthquake. We lost a lot of people."

The lessons the 1999 earthquakes offered for Turkey were stark. Despite the quakes' magnitude, much of the damage was preventable, the result of shoddy construction and the criminally negligent inspection of new housing. As the Turkish public watched the scenes of devastation live on television, the government failed to send rescue crews to the region for days, making painfully clear how inadequate the country's emergency response system was.

Turkey now appears to be better prepared for dealing with the aftereffects of the disaster. But the collapse of the dormitory also shows that policing the construction industry still remains a problem. Many Turks are asking, for example, why the relatively new dormitory collapsed while older buildings just next to it remained intact. According to experts, the "pancake" collapse of the four-story building could be an indication that it was not properly reinforced and that substandard materials had been used in its construction.

"The problem is not whether we can rescue and provide relief for people, the problem is whether we can prevent the building of flimsy buildings," says Ilnur Cevik, editor in chief of the English language Turkish Daily News. "The people who build them still get off scot-free. The lessons from that have not been learned."

The Bingol quake happened in a sparsely populated area, which helped keep the casualties low. But seismologists predict that a major earthquake will hit Istanbul, a sprawling city of over 15 million, in the next few decades, causing many deaths. According the Turkish experts, some 40,000-70,000 poorly constructed buildings in Istanbul need to be retrofitted to prevent them from collapsing during a quake.

Tuncay Taymaz, head of the earthquake seismology department at Istanbul Technical University, says Turkish authorities have yet to take the steps needed to deal with the next major earthquake.

"In Turkey, we still don't have a national earthquake master plan," Taymaz says. "[The Bingol earthquake] will not be the last one, I'm sorry. We keep writing reports and making suggestions, but nobody listens."

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