- By Anna Foster
- BBC Middle East Correspondents, Istanbul
The crack in Mesut Muttaliboglu’s bedroom wall is so wide, he can fit a car key in it.
He turns it to the side, and with a flick of his wrist, a large piece of plaster flies off the wall and crashes to the ground.
That’s why he and his family are moving out of the apartment they’ve lived in for 15 years. The entire building was condemned after failing an earthquake safety test. There is a very high probability that a tremor will bring this entire block crashing to the ground.
Here in Istanbul, the fear is growing.
Two powerful earthquakes in southern Turkey that have killed nearly 50,000 have brought new urgency to its largest city. Home to 15 million people, it sits on the North Anatolian fault line, and experts predict it will experience its own major earthquake before 2030.
About 70% of the city’s buildings were built before rule changes that imposed stricter construction standards in 1999, and thus are considered potentially unsafe. Just three months ago, a study said an earthquake here could kill up to 90,000 people. Now, the race is on to prepare the city.
Mesut knows all too well the devastation an earthquake can cause. He has just returned from the epicenter in the southern city of Kahramanmaras, where he lost relatives. As we talked in his now-empty apartment, he described the moment he found out.
“It happened at 04:17, a relative called and we all woke up screaming.” Mesut’s face is ruined in tears and he turns to compose himself. “It’s a horrible situation. We can’t [to Kahramanmaras] for three days because of the snow, and when we got to the rubles it was so hard. I can’t describe it. I hope God does not make anyone experience this.”
When Mesut returned to Istanbul, the authorities had shut off the power and water to his apartment. “I asked back just so I could move. He gave me two more days.”
“The municipality had sent us a written notice about this, but the situation has not been resolved due to the refusal of the neighbors. We knew that our utilities had to be closed, and we were ready to leave here, but after the earthquake happened. and everything became a clash.”
Since the earthquakes in the south, there have been more than 100,000 new applications to Istanbul Municipality for building safety checks. The waiting list for a shot up to three months, then four, and continues to grow.
Tenants and landlords can now apply, but some have not because of the financial implications. Compensation to help those who need to move out of condemned buildings is low. There are no official numbers showing how many fail the test.
The city’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, promised more training for rescue teams, and the preparation of temporary shelters that could house up to 4.5 million people after an earthquake. But many fear that is not enough.
A walk down an average street in Istanbul tells you why. Many of the buildings have particular design features that can cause them to collapse if they come under pressure during an earthquake.
Dr. Kurtulus Atasever, a structural and earthquake engineer, met me to point out some of them. We were standing on an empty piece of land, strewn with stones, which was the foundation of a building. When a magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit Istanbul in 2019, it was so damaged that it had to be demolished. In the street and on the street, their neighbors have many of the same defects.
Good quality concrete is vital, he tells me. And architecture is crucial. “We have some above here. In this type of building we have some weak or soft floors. There are also short columns, they are actually all the typical problems of the building.”
In very simple terms, each of them weakens a building at ground level, meaning that it struggles to hold the floors above if there is an earthquake. An overhang makes the rest of the building wider than the footprint. Soft floors are where the ground floor is higher than the floors above. Short columns are not long enough compared to their diameter.
They can be done safely, Dr. Atasever points out, but only if it has been carefully thought out and planned in the design. Especially in old buildings, this is rare.
We stayed in the shadow of Yasemin Suleymanoglu’s house, and I wonder if he is worried about the apartment block in which he is. He holds his daughter’s hand and looks at the face of the building. “I don’t feel safe here,” she says.
“Our building shook a lot during the 2019 earthquake, and the columns of the one across the street cracked. I felt restless from that sound, and with this last earthquake we are really afraid. We are losing sleep because we can they hit at any moment. And I think we’re at risk because our building is old.”
The next step is the development of a 50 km (31 mile) fiber optic based early warning system. But for such a huge city, it’s hard to know where people would go to seek shelter, even if they had a warning that an earthquake was coming.
As images of the devastation in the south continue to fill Turkish TV screens, these concerns are now front of mind for a large slice of Istanbul’s population. And only two months away from important presidential and parliamentary elections, which really matter.
Overnight, the earthquake and its aftermath joined Turkey’s economic crisis as a key issue for voters. Many are not happy with the management of the government. The rocks here are not only physical, they are also political.