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Istanbul's readiness for future earthquake remains in question: experts
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09:00, August 17, 2009

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Istanbul's readiness for a future earthquake disaster remains in question though 10 years have passed since the last tragedy, killing nearly 20,000 people and destroying thousands of buildings to mere rubble.

This is the warning issued by geophysicists in Turkey's media as the country marks the 10th anniversary of the 1999 Marmara earthquake centered in Golcuk.

With a magnitude of 7.4 on the open-ended Richter scale, the earthquake's waves stretched to many surrounding cities, including Istanbul, the most populous Turkish city with a population of 12 million.

According to geophysicists, Turkey has learned many lessons from earthquakes, the 1999 earthquake in particular, but preparations for the next one are still not sufficient.

A group of experts convened in May to discuss the readiness of Istanbul in the event of a major earthquake.

The daily Zaman reported on Sunday that their findings were not very heartwarming: An earthquake with a magnitude of 7 would kill thousands of people in the city.

"Istanbul has so far experienced at least 50 strong quakes. Istanbul still not being ready for a major earthquake saddens us. Though 10 years have passed since the 1999 quake, only a small number of schools and hospitals in Istanbul have been reinforced," stated Cemal Gokce, head of the Istanbul Chamber of Civil Engineers.

According to Mustafa Erdik of Bogazici University's Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute, the expected number of fatalities in the event of a major earthquake has significantly dropped since 2000, but preparations cannot be deemed satisfactory.

"Experts were expecting a death toll of around 40,000 for Istanbul before. Now the figure is around 22,000. This points to a decrease of around 50 percent. Despite the decrease, the feared number of fatalities is still too high," noted Erdik.

The daily quoted him as saying that the most damage in the event of a big quake is expected in the Ambarl and Tuzla areas of Istanbul: "We estimate that around 300,000 people will become unemployed. The total cost of the earthquake will be 2 billion dollars."

Hasan Ipek, head of Turkey's Emergency and Natural Disasters Management General Directorate, expressed determination to prepare Istanbul for a possible earthquake. But he said: "Is all we have done so far enough? Absolutely not."

Two devastating earthquakes hit Turkey within less than three months in 1999. The first, with its epicenter in northwestern Izmit Province, struck on August 17, leaving some 17,000 people dead and thousands more homeless. The second struck just 100 kilometers away on Nov. 12, killing hundreds more.

Of those deaths, 1,000 were in Istanbul, and many were blamed on substandard buildings erected by a construction industry rife with corruption.

Turkey lies on a major fault-line and has had 90 earthquakes higher than magnitude 5 since 1903.

According to data provided by the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects' Chambers, of the roughly 16 million buildings in Turkey, 40 percent were constructed illegally, and around 67 percent of all buildings do not have an occupancy permit.

An earthquake plan was launched after the 1999 quake, but experts complain no action has been taken on the studies commissioned. One such study completed in 2004 showed that of 16,000 buildings in one vulnerable area, around 2,300 were declared very high risk, or expected to collapse in a quake.

Professor Okan Tuysuz, an academic at Istanbul Technical University, complained that officials in Turkey take almost no measures against future tremors.

According to Tuysuz, Istanbul faces a 68 percent risk of being hit by an earthquake in the next 30 years. "If a fault-line between Izmit and Murefte breaks, the magnitude of the tremor will be 7.6. Such a tremor would result in the deaths of between 60,000to 90,000 people. Around 60,000 buildings would collapse, and the cost of the quake for the country would be 40 billion dollars," the professor added.

Geophysicists seem to disagree over the prospects of a major earthquake in or around Istanbul in the near future.

Professor Naci Gorur from Istanbul Technical University voices his expectation of a big tremor in the city in the very near future, claiming that the fault-line under the Marmara Sea remains active.

However, according to Professor Ahmet Ercan, Honorary President of Geophysical Society of Turkey, the Marmara region is not likely to be struck by an earthquake before 2015.

He warned that two earthquakes may occur in the Sakarya trench, which is the region between Kaynasli and Izmit, before 2025.

Recep Salci, head of Kocaeli branch of the Turkish Search and Rescue Society, expressed worry that all the search-and-rescue teams in Turkey would not be adequate if Istanbul was struck by a quake with a magnitude of half of what's expected.

"Almost 97 percent of people trapped under buildings in the 1999 earthquake were saved by the public. Search-and-rescue teams were able to save only 3 percent of them," he said.

Salci also drew attention to the risky situation of the northwestern province of Kocaeli in the event of a major quake in Istanbul.

"Everyone is worried about Istanbul, but no one thinks about Kocaeli. Is Kocaeli prepared for a major quake? Unfortunately not," he noted.

Source: Xinhua

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