Thursday, March 15, 2012

Earthquakes in Turkey take their toll

By Hilary Johnson
Edited and produced by Taylor Pool

Turkey’s earthquakes have totaled to be some of the most destructive, in recent times, but not in terms of the death toll. With the many weak infrastructures, the people of Turkey are asking why the buildings are not more stable.

“Earthquakes do not kill people, but buildings and other things kill people… We simple do not establish strict measures for constructions; so when it comes to earthquake times we start complaining,” said Dr. Nezih Orhon, a dean at Anadolu University in Eskisehir.

Photo from http://disaster-report.blogspot.com/2011
/11/m-72-very-deadly-van-ercis-turkey.html
With the instability of apartments, universities, and other public buildings the government has tried to put measures in place to improve construction companies’ procedures. “[We] had, in 2007, a new building code in affect; however when we look at an earthquake, even the modern reinforced, concrete buildings collapsed and got significant damage,” explained Erol Kalkan, a Turkish engineer working for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Analyzing the problem

The majority of the problem lies among construction companies, who use cheaper materials to save costs, and local governments, who overlook building codes and necessary standards. Jonathan Head, a Turkey-based correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), said, “They have certainly cracked down in recent times but in a small town its less so because builders will be charging much less and the local government will not force [codes] as strictly as they should” He blames this partly on the competitive nature of the Turkey’s construction industry, second in the world according to the Hurriyet Daily News, where “people will cheat where they can.”

With an imbalance of control by the government and of regulation of booming construction industry, people aren’t sure who is at fault. “Sometimes the local construction firms try to cut the cost so they put in a minimum amount of reinforcing bars and less concrete,” said Kalkan.

Sadık Mert Küçükkuzucu also added, “They use beach sands or some other thing that are not strong enough to stand an earthquake, so buildings collapse.” Head has seen this corruption before and further explained that companies use these beach sands to mix with their concrete because they’re very inexpensive. Because of the high salt content in the sand, it corrodes the concrete when mixed, allowing for easy collapsibility.

The government shares in the fault

Although there are many faults with the construction companies’ procedures, the government still needs to be recognized for some of the blame of these buildings that crumble in natural disasters such as earthquakes. The Turkish Ministry of Public Works and Settlement is responsible for maintaining building regulations and enforcing codes, according to Kalkan.

Orhon spoke of a shocking account almost two and a half years ago. At the time, he lived in a ten-story apartment building and noticed that there weren’t fire stairs on the outside, which is against government building codes. After contacting the manager and obtaining the proper documents they were surprised by the results. “There was no real inspection (of the fire stairs), they were all just signatures,” said Orhon. Later that evening, he and the manager received calls from the construction company saying they were “doing wrong things” and to “be careful.” Orhon suggested that the problem with unsound infrastructures is “illegal contact between the (government) officials and construction companies.”

Many citizens feel anger toward the construction companies and government sectors that do not enforce restrictions properly, but people realize there also needs to be a mentality change among the citizens. Mubin Kiyici, a Turk living in Athens, OH said, “We have so many earthquakes in our history and we have to learn from the previous ones.” He suggested that the mentality of the people has to be more open to finding alternate housing and relocating, if that’s what the government demands for safety reasons.

This task of relocating is not something Turkish citizens are willing to undertake. According to Orhon, who assigned his students to speak with citizens after the 2011 earthquake in Van, people said they would support the government if they tried to make communities relocate to safer, less earthquake-prone regions. But when asked if they themselves would move if the government came knocking, they all immediately said no. Orhon explained that this is where you have an inconsistency in opinion vs. action when the person is directly affected.

“A lot of work has been done by NGOs and the government to understanding all of this information and educating people,” said Head.

In addition, Orhon hopes to shed light on this dilemmna and increase education June 19-21, 2012 in the upcoming International Conference on Global Health and Crisis Communication Strategies, hosted by Anadolu University. “The main goal of this conference is to reflect and see how to share experiences,” said Orhon.

Invited organizations include the University of Iowa, Anadolu University, Red Crescent, Turkish Health Ministry, NGOs like Rotary, and other emergency offices. These groups and academic institutions will analyze particular cases, including building codes and regulations mishaps, to see how new technologies influence the way things are done.

While it’s apparent that Turkish citizens should learn from past mistakes, construction companies and government agencies still need to be held accountable for new, collapsing buildings and unenforced codes, such as in Orhon’s case.

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