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A quake of unthinkable proportions is due in Istanbul. Residents ask if the city is prepared

By Nada Bashir, Işıl Sarıyüce and Mary Rogers, CNN

Istanbul CNN  —  For more than five weeks, Turkey has grappled with the aftermath of a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the country’s south-east. But further afield, in its biggest and most populous city, pressure is mounting on authorities to prepare for the possibility of another natural disaster of unthinkable proportions.

“The outlook for Istanbul is not bright. It’s not bright at all,” says Professor Celal Sengor, one of Turkey’s foremost geoscientists.

“If a major earthquake doesn’t happen in the next twenty years in Istanbul, then we would all be very surprised,” the Istanbul Technical University professor tells CNN. “That’s how close it is. It’s only a probability, but the probability is high.”

With two key fault lines in its vicinity – the North Anatolian and the East Anatolian – Turkey is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. It’s a geological reality that has amplified concern over Istanbul’s earthquake preparedness.

Once the capital of both the Byzantine empire and the Ottoman empire, the densely populated city is home to around 16 million people. It lies precariously close to the North Anatolian fault, which passes within 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of Istanbul and through the Sea of Marmara, according to the Geological Society of London.

Historically, the fault has led to several disastrous earthquakes, including a 7.6 magnitude quake that struck the nearby city of Izmit in 1999, killing over 17,000 people, and displacing an estimated 500,000 others.

Today, experts estimate that another earthquake across the North Anatolian fault could reach a magnitude of anywhere between 7.2 and 7.8, with devastating consequences for Turkey’s commercial and industrial hub. The timing of such a quake, however, is impossible to predict.

“We can foretell that an earthquake of that magnitude will happen soon, but that is the best we can do. There is no way you can predict it,” Sengor says.

A study conducted by the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute estimates a death toll of more than 14,000 if a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Istanbul were to occur at night. Some experts, however, believe the toll will be far greater.

“My estimate is about 100,000. It’s going to be havoc,” says Sengor. “You can’t just think about the direct impact of the shaking, you must also think about what will follow the shaking. There will be looting, fires, epidemics. It’s going to be terrible.”

Current projections by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality indicate that a 7.5 magnitude quake along the North Anatolian fault could lead to the destruction of approximately 90,000 buildings in the city, with a further 260,000 buildings likely facing significant damage. It is a sobering prediction that could leave some 4.5 million people homeless, according to city officials – that’s more than a quarter of Istanbul’s population.

Now, after more than 48,000 people were killed in Turkey by last month’s earthquake, Istanbul is racing to shore up its defenses against a natural disaster that experts say could strike at any moment.

As part of efforts to prepare for a major earthquake, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has launched what officials describe as the city’s “roadmap for disaster preparedness.”

The plan includes provisions for a greater allocation of the city’s funds to its disaster preparedness program, as well as details of new emergency points that will be established to provide citizens with critical services such as shelter, water and energy. But chief among the city’s priorities is its rapid scanning system to assess the safety of Istanbul’s buildings.

For more than three years, the municipality has carried out building evaluations for properties built before the year 2000, when new earthquake regulations were brought into force. The service is now being provided free of charge and, since February’s earthquake, the municipality says applications have risen by more than 100,000.

Ozlem Tut, the head of the municipality’s Earthquake Risk Management and Urban Improvement Department, tells CNN that of the 29,000 buildings inspected so far, 50% are under high risk of collapse. “We’ve also identified 318 buildings… that could collapse without any earthquake damage,” she says.

Construction amnesties

While the municipality says it is taking the lead on ensuring the city is prepared for an earthquake, the mayor – a key member of Turkey’s largest opposition party – is also taking aim at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, criticizing the government’s historic implementation of construction zoning amnesties.

Since the mid 1980s, Turkey’s government has granted amnesties to buildings constructed without planning permission, as well as those failing to adhere to official building codes, including earthquake regulations.

Now, there is concern for Istanbul’s countless ‘gecekondu’ communities. The term translates to ‘built overnight’ and refers to homes constructed quickly and without proper permissions, often found within one of the city’s many shanty neighborhoods.

Imamoglu wants to bring an end to zoning amnesties.

Some residents of these impoverished neighborhoods tell CNN that even if their homes are at risk, they do not have the financial means to move elsewhere.

“Our building is not strong. There are no columns, it’s only bricks. But what can we do? It’s a shanty house, we built it on our own,” Sukriye Aldirmaz tells CNN.

In Istanbul’s Armutlu neighborhood, local resident Sade Ozorman tells CNN she has little hope that her building would survive an earthquake.

“Most of the buildings here are more than 30 years old” Ozorman says. “I don’t think they are sturdy buildings. I actually want to move, but rent prices are just too high.”

In many gecekondu neighborhoods, single-story shanty homes have been extended, transforming them into residential apartment blocks for financial gain. Despite safety concerns, many of these buildings have gained legal status through the government’s construction amnesties.

But such concerns are not unique to gecekondu communities. Many less-privileged neighborhoods in the city were built prior to the introduction of earthquake regulations and are considered unsafe.

Sukru Karali, a building contractor living in the district of Bagcilar, tells CNN he doesn’t trust the integrity of the buildings he helped develop in the area, including his own home.

“These buildings were constructed in the early 1990s. How can you trust them?” Karali says. “It is very concerning, but there isn’t anything we can do. It really depends on your financial situation.”

Unaffordable housing

Istanbul’s housing market is becoming increasingly unaffordable as Turkey faces a deepening financial crisis. The country has seen soaring inflation as a result of the government’s unorthodox monetary policies, and a currency crisis that last year saw nearly 30% slashed off the lira’s value against the dollar.

As part of its disaster mobilization plan, Istanbul municipality says it has begun work to construct 5,000 units of social housing for low-income households, with plans for a further 10,000 social housing units to be constructed in the near future.

Erdogan, who faces elections in two months, has also pledged to construct thousands of new homes, vowing to rebuild parts of south-east Turkey impacted by February’s earthquake within one year. In a recent address, he conceded that some 6.5 million buildings across the country are in need of reconstruction.

Imamoglu, the Istanbul mayor, has been nominated to run for vice president by an alliance of opposition parties hoping to unseat Erdogan and his Ak Party in the May elections.

Now, with February’s earthquake placing Turkey’s disaster preparedness firmly at the top of voters’ minds, Imamoglu is calling for closer cooperation between central and local government to prepare the country’s commercial capital for what experts say is the inevitable.

“The impending disaster is one that will threaten Turkey’s national security,” Imamoglu said earlier this month at a meeting to announce the disaster preparedness plan. “It is not only a threat to Istanbul or the Marmara region. It is a threat to Turkey’s future, its economy and its place in the world.”

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