Sitting outside a sports stadium that’s been turned into a make-shift medical center in the quake- struck Turkish city of Ercis, two emergency workers enjoyed a brief respite from their toils.
For Kursat Guzlek, 36, an anesthetic technician with UMKE, Turkey’s emergency rescue service, the 7.2-magnitude quake that triggered devastation in the east of Turkey on October 23 is horribly familiar. Twelve years ago, he was among the crews that struggled to find survivors following the huge quake that struck Izmit in western Turkey, claiming 18,000 lives.
“Back then they didn’t have enough rescue teams, they were too slow, but now Turkey is ready for any earthquake,” Guzlek said. “It’s much more organized this time. We’re prepared for it. More equipment is available and we got it here more quickly.”
With the official death toll now standing at 430 and with possibly thousands more people buried in the rubble of ruined buildings in Ercis and the neighbouring city of Van, comparisons are inevitably being drawn between the two quakes.
“The Van earthquake shows us the progress made in the last 12 years,” wrote Murat Yetkin in a column for the daily Radikal newspaper. “The access of the government and foundations to the disaster area was much quicker than 12 years ago.”
The government, which so far has declined all offers of rescue assistance apart from those of Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Iran, said emergency services from 45 Turkish cities and more than 200 ambulances were deployed across the quake zone. The Turkish Red Crescent has sent some 7,500 tents, more than 22,000 heaters and 1,000 body bags to the region.
But despite the dozens of diggers, cranes, and rescue crews in Ercis, there was evident chaos, as civilian vehicles choked the roads, often preventing ambulances from getting past. In addition, a shortage of tents left thousands of people sleeping outdoors in freezing temperatures. In one instance, as hundreds queued to receive precious tents, armed soldiers had to control their distribution to prevent rioting. Meanwhile, there were reports of gunfire and rioting in Van, where tension has also flared over the lack of shelter.
Following the 1999 Izmit quake, authorities introduced tighter building codes, honed urban-planning blueprints and mandated improvements in key public infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, pipelines, and highways. But the Van quake suggests that the safety measures taken back then were either inadequate, or insufficiently enforced. Among the 2,252 buildings so far believed to have collapsed in the Van quake, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, are a state-run dormitory. Also damaged were a police station, hospital and a prison.
“The building regulations have been amended and improved, but I am not sure of the extent to which these regulations are applied, and how well they stem corruption,” Sinan Ozeren, assistant professor of geology at Istanbul Technical University.
“When cities are unplanned, earthquakes that make buildings collapse cause far greater chaos than in well planned cities,” he added.
Since the 1999 quake, experts have often warned that illegally constructed and substandard housing around the country remain a serious cause for concern.
In April, Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas announced that around 1 million illegally constructed buildings -- around 60-70 percent of the city’s total building stock -- are highly vulnerable to earthquakes.
Also, a report by a Turkish parliamentary commission released last year accused the government of failing to reinforce substandard buildings, punish building code violators, and control urban development.
“The real disaster [in the Van quake] is the buildings,” said Murat Yetkin, writing in Radikal. “The collapsed dormitory was built only five years ago, after the earthquake regulations, it should have been inspected. “The police station in Ercis, the hospital, they are all public buildings. Is it different in Ankara or Istanbul? That is the point.”
This anger echoed among the frustrated crowds clamoring for shelter in Ercis. “They are only allowed to build three stories high around here,” said Mehmet Sali Kilic, 40, a construction worker. “But they built much higher. The government does nothing about it.”
How that frustration will feed into longstanding local ethnic tensions over relations between the area’s Kurdish population and Ankara remains unclear for now. In an evident attempt, though, to emphasize national unity in the face of disaster, President Abdullah Gül on October 25 commented that “the Turkish state’s helping hand and those of the whole nation will embrace the residents of Van,” the province where the earthquake struck, the semi-official Anadolu news agency reported.
Alexander Christie-Miller is an Istanbul-based journalist, now reporting from Ercis.