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HomeTechnology & ScienceIn Turkey's earthquake-ravaged Antakya, residents wonder why city wasn't better prepared

In Turkey’s earthquake-ravaged Antakya, residents wonder why city wasn’t better prepared

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In Antakya’s old town, ancient churches, mosques, restaurants and hotels sit in mangled mounds of rubble that have been largely untouched since Feb. 6, when two catastrophic earthquakes struck just nine hours apart, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

On the edge of a near-deserted street  in this southeastern Turkish city, Mehmet Sirkan Sincan, 50, sits outside of his crumbling antique shop along with some of his vintage goods. He says he’s still open for business. 

Sincan lights a cigarette and drinks a coffee. It resembles a normal morning routine, except that he is surrounded by piles of chalk-coloured debris, in a city ravaged by a disaster. 

He says authorities need to go back decades to find those accountable.

“Those who have made not good things … have to pay something,” he said. “People died. Children died. Everybody died.”

Antakya, which had a pre-earthquake population of around 200,000, lies in the province of Hatay in Turkey’s southeast. During the earthquakes, the region saw more than half of its 400,000 buildings collapse or become severely damaged. 

Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vow to rebuild the homes in the earthquake zone within a year, local officials say it will be months before any construction can begin in Antakya because aftershocks are still continuing, and so is the demolition of entire blocks.

As tens of thousands of residents live in tents and trailers, there is still palpable anger among some over why the region wasn’t better prepared, given the risk was well known. In the wake of the destruction in the southeast, experts warn a similar disaster could be repeated in the Istanbul area which is due to experience a major quake of its own. 

Emel Atici gathers dry branches to heat up water so people staying at the camp can have a weekly shower. Atici, 61, lost her son, daughter-in-law and grandson in the earthquakes in Antakya. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

When the first 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck at 4:17 a.m., Sincan awoke to thunderous shaking in the apartment building he shared with his parents.

He heard the cries of his mom and was eventually able to reunite with her and his father, before heading out to the street to try and rescue people crying out from the rubble. 

He closes his eyes and shakes his head as he tells CBC News that he often thinks about those frantic hours after the first quake. 

With his apartment building too damaged to stay in, he moved into the second floor of his antique shop until a third earthquake, which measured 6.4, struck two weeks later.

He was standing in the street at the time, near members of the Turkish military, when they all crouched as low as they could to the ground.

“I [thought] we were going down this time, it was so hard,” he told CBC News on May 16 outside of his shop in Antakya.

Rubble of destroyed buildings.
A luxury apartment complex that was just opened in 2019 in Antakya used to sit on this site. The five towers of the Guclu Bahce (Mighty Garden) development were marketed as being built to the highest standards. Dozens of residents were killed. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

After a few seconds, they started to hear the large “booms” of buildings crashing to the earth, including a four-storey apartment-style hotel that was across the street. 

Officials said six people were killed in the quake which struck just as the rescue mission after the first two was winding down. 

Tightening building codes 

Turkey is one of the most earthquake-prone countries given its proximity to the intersection of tectonic plates. Two fault lines run across it, and February’s quakes stemmed from slips on the 700-km East Anatolian fault.

Experts say the country is also at a great risk for severe destruction given hundreds of thousands of its buildings have poor structural integrity.

In 1998, the country tightened its construction codes to make buildings more earthquake resistant. A year later, when a 7.4 earthquake in the western city of Izmit killed more than 17,000 people, more regulations were introduced to enforce the design code and inspection of new buildings.

But even new, supposedly state-of-the-art buildings came crashing down in the February earthquakes, leading to accusations of fraud and corruption.

Authorities have issued more 230 arrest warrants for developers and contractors. 

A New York Times investigation found that a developer won zoning approval for a five-tower residential complex in Antakya after donating more than $270,000 to a local soccer club. 

Four of the five towers collapsed in the earthquakes and authorities have launched a criminal investigation. 

When it was opened in 2019, it was marketed as being built to the highest standard. 

The mayor of Hatay, Lütfü Savaş, helped officially open the buildings by holding a pair of golden scissors.

Today he is facing calls for his resignation, and dismissing them.

‘Everybody has a responsibility’

In an interview with CBC News on May 16, Savaş said so many of Hatay’s buildings were destroyed because “it was hard to withstand” the strength of the successive earthquakes.

Savaş, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, acknowledged that even buildings constructed after the earthquake codes were tightened “may have deficiencies.”

“But when construction is done, engineers, companies, contractors, supervisors, municipality, government…. Everybody has a responsibility,” he said.

A man stands outside.
Lütfü Savaş, the mayor of Hatay, is seen in Antakya on May 16. He says rebuilding can’t begin until there are fewer aftershocks. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

He says rebuilding can’t begin yet in Antakya because it wouldn’t be “scientifically correct” to start pouring foundations while aftershocks continue. 

He says officials are also working on a plan to rebuild the ancient city, which has been destroyed by earthquakes several times during its 2,400-year history.

He says the plan includes restricting the height of buildings and adding more green space in the city centre, where the soil is particularly unstable.

Warning signs

There had been plenty of warnings and predictions from experts about Hatay’s vulnerability. 

One month before the quakes, Şükrü Ersoy, a geologist and dean of civil engineering at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, gave a presentation about Hatay’s lack of preparedness. 

For years he and others had been warning about the poor location of Hatay’s airport, which was built on top of a fault line and a drained lake bed. It was constructed and opened anyway in 2007, which Ersoy saw as “a political decision.”

A man stands in front of a damaged building.
Şükrü Ersoy, dean of the school of civil engineering at Yildiz Technical University, is seen visiting Antakya, where he has extended family members. He was also there a month before the major earthquakes in February, for a presentation about how the region wasn’t prepared for such a disaster. (Submitted by Şükrü Ersoy)

“It is a strategic place in the Middle East,” he said, as the airport lies just 30 km from the Syrian border. 

During the earthquake, its only runway was destroyed. While the airport is back up and running with limited flights, officials are discussing if, and where, it should be relocated. 

High risk in Istanbul

Ersoy, who was one of the experts who met with Erdogan in the days following the disaster, is now repeating his warnings about what could come next — a quake in Turkey’s Marmara region, near the city of Istanbul.

He says the earthquake recurrence period is 250 years and the last big earthquake along that section of the fault line happened in 1776.

“That is why there is a big tension in Marmara Sea,” he said.

He expects an earthquake 7.0 or even 7.5 will eventually occur, which could produce a tsunami. In a region with a population of 30 million people, he believes the deaths could be as high as 150,000.

In the municipality of Istanbul, nearly 70 per cent of all of buildings were built before 2000, according to Özlem Tut, head of a project to inspect buildings there.

A street lined with apartment buildings.
Nearly 70 per cent of all of Istanbul’s buildings were constructed before 2000, which is when Turkey introduced new regulations to ensure homes are better able to withstand major earthquakes. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

For the past three years, city crews have been inspecting buildings for structural integrity and found that about half of the nearly 30,000 buildings they looked at could collapse in a major earthquake. 

Those who live in buildings that are at the highest risk can apply for funding to renovate, but Tut told CBC News that initially there was limited interest in the project. She said people were afraid that their homes could be demolished if they failed the inspection. 

However, after the earthquakes, Tut said there has been a surge in interest and her team had received more than 150,000 applications. But there is a limited number of crews to do the work. 

Back in Antakya, Sincan wants to see life return, but admits that the old town likely won’t be the way it was before.

Inside his antique shop, he has a map of Turkey’s fault lines hanging on the wall. He says he decided to put it up just six months before the earthquakes. 

“For me it was maybe a message,” he said. “Wake up … something bad is coming.”

WATCH | Residents of Hatay province deal with aftermath of Feb. 20 quake:

Turkey, Syria rocked by another powerful earthquake

Desperate calls for help are being issued as rescue efforts are renewed in Turkey and Syria following another massive earthquake. Monday’s quake followed an even more powerful one two weeks ago that killed more than 47,000 people.

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