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Istanbul Earthquake Reconstruction Feared Unsafe

  • Dorian Jones

Historic Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey, July 21, 2010.

Historic Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey, July 21, 2010.

ISTANBUL — Istanbul's 15 million people are facing an 80 percent chance of a major earthquake in the next 30 years. In preparation for the predicted quake, the government and local authorities have started to rebuild more than one-third of Istanbul's structures. But, controversy surrounds the reconstruction policy and experts worry the preparations are inadequate.

Turkey's main earthquake monitoring center hums to the sound of powerful computers. It was here at the Kandili Observatory the first news broke of the powerful quake that hit the Istanbul region in 1999, killing up to 30,000 people. Observatory Director Mustafa Erdik warns a far more devastating quake could occur.

"The tectonic tensions after the 1999 quake have transferred to Marmara region, and this increased the tension," said Erdik. "There is a high risk, with a two-percent rise every year, for an earthquake to happen."

Last year's powerful quake in the eastern city of Van, set alarm bells ringing in Ankara. An estimated 60,000 people were left homeless and more than 600 were killed. Much of the devastation was blamed on badly or illegally built structures.

Experts say Istanbul faces similar problems, but on much greater scale, being home to about 15 million people. This year the government passed legislation to rebuild Istanbul.

Under the new law, homes considered dangerous by a panel of state appointed experts will be replaced. Owners will be given a smaller apartment in a new building or have to pay the difference in value between old and new.

In Istanbul's Zeytinburnu district the law is already in effect. Construction is well underway for new apartment blocks.

The area is one of the poorest in the city and more than 2,000 buildings are at risk, about 12 percent of the housing stock according to Deputy Mayor Zafer Alsac.

"The biggest problem is illegal buildings, and the quality of older buildings and living arrangements are not good," said Alsac. "Replacing those buildings will not damage "the fabric of the neighborhood," as critics have said, because there is no fabric to damage."

City authorities say as many as one-third of Istanbul's buildings will eventually be replaced. The massive construction project will mainly be undertaken by the state body, Toki, but there is growing concern about the strategy.

Istanbul chamber of architects head Mucelle Yapici says she is concerned that rather than solving the quake threat it could make matters worse

"What is being done to reduce the effect of the quake is increasing the danger, " warned Yapici. "The new buildings have increased the population density, and while they may be well constructed to resist a quake, the land they are built on is not solid and is unsafe."

Experts also point out Toki is attached to the prime minister's office and is largely exempt from independent scrutiny, including the construction inspection law.

All the new buildings by Toki in Istanbul are bigger than those they replace, to cover the costs of the construction. With many in prime city locations, observers say profits are likely to be considerable.

At a Zeytinburnu community center the threat of an earthquake and the new construction projects are on the lips of many, although opinion is divided.

This man says, many people heard the municipality is given 300 apartments by the contractor. He says it appears the money from those apartments goes into the pocket of someone, not to the local people.

But another disagrees:

He says there is no problem, because for the life and future of his family and children he would like to live in such a place. He says even if the new home will be smaller there can be no comparison of value of the new apartment to the older one.

At an estimated cost of $600 billion, the rebuilding of Istanbul has been described by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as one of the construction projects of the century. But the question of who will benefit from it will be answered by how successfully Istanbul copes with a much predicted earthquake.
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