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Thousands of Buildings Collapsed in Turkey. Devastation Was Preventable, Experts Say

6 minute read

In Turkey—a country nestled between several plate boundaries and located directly on two main fault zones, the East Anatolian and the North Anatolian—earthquakes are a fact of life.

The 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes that hit Monday, leaving at least 20,000 dead and thousands injured across Turkey and Syria, are only the latest in a string of several deadly earthquakes in recent years.

The country’s disaster agency said that more than 5,600 buildings across southeastern Turkey have collapsed so far. “These are the kinds of quakes we’d expect to see 10 or 20 years apart,” says Cüneyt Tüzün, an earthquake engineer based in Izmir, Turkey. “They happened within a few hours of each other.”

But in a country where the arrival of a large earthquake was only a matter of time, how is such widespread destruction possible?

As recently as last November, civil engineers raised warnings that the country’s infrastructure was incapable of handling a large earthquake. Old buildings across the country don’t meet modern quake-resistant building codes, and experts told TIME that although newer construction plans often call for higher building standards, they’re sometimes not carried out on the ground.

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Warnings Signs

Ten years after a 1999 earthquake in İzmit killed over 17,000 people, the Turkish government established the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) to help cope in the face of natural disasters. The government also pledged new construction standards and a plan to strengthen existing buildings.

The plan involved designating hundreds of urban spaces as evacuation points in case of emergency. But, over the years, an explosion of new developments undid many of the planned earthquake readiness improvements, and open-air evacuation zones were converted into high rises, NPR reported in 2017.

At the end of 2022, following a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, Turkey’s Union of Engineers and Architects released a statement saying that Turkey “has failed in terms of what needs to be done before the earthquake.”

Rescuers search for survivors at the site of a collapsed building following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Feb. 7.Sertac Kayar—Reuters

The union added that site supervision “continues to be seen as a procedure on paper only,” noting that, “it is essential that the design, construction and inspection processes are carried out in a correct and vigorous way in order to ensure the safety of buildings against earthquakes. In each of these three pillars of safe construction, it is known that there are serious problems both legally and in practice.”

Cutting Corners

Dr. H. Kit Miyamoto, a structural engineer at ​​Miyamoto International, is arriving in Turkey to help local engineers with earthquake engineering and provide humanitarian assistance. He says that in 1997, Turkey passed a code that required buildings to be constructed using ductile concrete, a material that is more flexible in the event of an earthquake, but estimates that only one in 10 buildings in the country meets the standard, as old buildings are often reused rather than razed down to meet new standards.

Even still, engineers can reinforce older buildings through retrofitting, a process that is more cost-effective than constructing a building from scratch. But Miyamoto, who has worked with the World Bank to retrofit schools in Turkey, says that it is difficult to force private buildings to do so.

“It costs on average 10-15% of the replacement cost,” says ​​Miyamoto. “You could retrofit eight buildings for the price of [building] one,” he adds, “but seismic retrofitting does not add market value.”

“The construction industry is a big source of money,” explains Tüzün. This allows the government to turn a blind eye to looser regulation on sites, he says.

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Economic disparities between Eastern Turkey and Western Turkey are also at play here, points out Tuzun. Turkey has the highest regional disparities in GDP among 29 OECD countries, according to a 2020 OECD report, and the country’s eastern region—where the earthquake occurred—has long lagged in income in comparison to the western region, according to a CEPR study. This makes the region more vulnerable to insufficient infrastructure standards. “The construction quality is lower in comparison to the western part of Turkey,” Tuzun says.

Ayhan Irfanoglu, a Civil Engineering professor at Purdue University, says that early photos of the earthquake damage show tall buildings “pancaked” or slumped on their sides “like a deck of cards.” Irfanoglu notes that often, local jurisdictions don’t enforce codes, or contractors on the ground don’t understand the complex codes they’re meant to be implementing.

After the 1999 earthquake, many builders’ families were killed, which Irfanoglu says points to that lack of understanding. “Who would put their family in a building deliberately designed to be vulnerable? I don’t think any human being would do that.”

A rescue team works on a collapsed building following an earthquake in Osmaniye, Turkey, on Feb. 6.Dilara Senkaya—Reuters

The Road Ahead

To prevent a tragedy like this again, follow through on compliance will key. Irfanoglu says that as the region recovers, this experience might make towns more aware of the importance of proper building practices. “Once you experience an earthquake or a disaster of any scale, you become a lot more sensitive.”

In Duzce, he says, the experience of the earthquake in 1999 pushed the town to construct buildings that were up to code. When the area experienced a 5.9 earthquake in 2022, it saw significantly less damage. Irfanoglu also cites Chile as a model for building strategies that have held up in the face of earthquakes: “There is an undeniable field of evidence of what works.”

Tüzün adds that engineers know the infrastructure changes that are necessary to prevent building collapses at this scale, especially in an area where earthquakes are inevitable. Now they must be implemented.

“Nature is warning us,” Tüzün says. “If we take the proper action, we will have less loss in the future.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com