Turkish quake highlights shoddy construction

AP News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2011 12:50 PM
Turkish quake highlights shoddy construction

Two things are for certain in Turkey: The country will have earthquakes, and those earthquakes will continue to kill.

Turkey faces a fatal combination of geography and history. It lies at the intersection of the Anatolian, African, Eurasian and Arabian tectonic plates, and its building codes have been lightly regulated for centuries _ meaning that earthquakes will be deadly here for years to come.

Despite tough safety codes approved a decade ago after earthquakes killed 18,000 people and prompted an outcry over the poor quality of construction, enforcement has remained lax.

After the latest disaster _ a magnitude-7.2 temblor that killed hundreds on Sunday _ some residents in the worst-hit town of Ercis said some of the pancaked buildings lacked steel support rods and sufficient concrete, and accused builders of sacrificing safety for speed and economy.

"Death comes from God. But what about poor construction?" asked Nevzat Altinkaynak. "Look at this building. It was new. It didn't even have paint on it yet!"

Altinkaynak waited outside a collapsed building for news of his wife, Ayse, after rescuers pulled out his daughter Tugba alive.

On Wednesday, the prime minister weighed in, charging that shoddy construction contributed to the high casualty toll and that Turkey had not learned lessons from past disasters.

"When we look at the wreckage, we see how the material used is of bad quality," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. "We see that people pay the price for concrete that virtually turned to sand, or for weakened concrete blocks on the ground floors. Municipalities, constructors and supervisors should now see that their negligence amounts to murder."

He said: "Despite all previous disasters, we see that the appeals were not heeded."

Some 2,000 structures were demolished in Sunday's quake, including about 80 multistory buildings in Ercis.

Serdar Harp, head of Turkey's Civil Engineers Chamber, told Milliyet newspaper on Tuesday that area buildings constructed before January were not properly inspected despite the stricter building codes that went into force in 2001, two years after devastating earthquakes in western Turkey.

Many of the people killed by the 1999 quakes died in cheaply made housing blocks that pancaked, and which were later revealed never to have been inspected. Further investigation revealed that much of the cement lacked metal reinforcing bars, or was mixed with large amounts of sand that made it unstable.

The latest disaster revealed similar construction shortcomings, residents said. Harun Uzmez, a fireman experienced in quake rescue, picked up a piece of rubble from the wall of a 20-year-old, five-story building that housed several families. He poked at it, and dust flew off. He dropped it, and it broke into pieces.

"It was all sand and lime," he said. He said iron rods used in the columns of the building were not strong enough.

The disaster in eastern Turkey came a year after a parliamentary report concluded authorities were failing to enforce new building codes, which stipulate that construction cannot begin until plans prepared by authorized architects and construction engineers are approved by inspectors.

Authorized engineers are also supposed to inspect the construction while it's under way to make sure the quality of cement is good enough and sufficient steel rods are used.

The parliamentary report said Turkey has also failed to improve city planning, reinforce substandard buildings, control urban development and punish people who violate building codes. It warned that several Turkish cities are at risk.

Foremost among them is Istanbul, which sits near a major fault line and has a population of 15 million. Geologists have urged the government to tear down some 40,000 buildings there that would probably collapse in a big quake, and have warned that hundreds of thousands more need to be reinforced.

Some engineers said Sunday's quake was so strong that even properly built buildings would have collapsed.

Shaking associated with a magnitude-7.2 quake "can cause collapse of buildings even with moderate seismic design and quality construction," according to Mishac Yegian, a professor of civil engineering at Northeastern University in Boston.

"Careful evaluations of the collapsed and survived buildings can reveal how much the extremely high intensity ground shaking, or deficiencies in design and construction contributed to the disaster," Yegian said. "It is the tendency of people at early stages to fault the designs and quality of construction."

Turkey has also imposed mandatory earthquake insurance for homes, but only about 3 million out of 18 million are insured, according to reports that cite the state-run Turkish Catastrophe Insurance Pool.

In eastern Turkey, where Sunday's quake struck, the figure is 2.8 percent.