Cablegate: Waiting for the Big One... Is Istanbul Prepared

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: Despite continued public awareness about
the likelihood of a major earthquake in the next 30 years,
Istanbul remains ill-prepared for a major natural disaster.
To the extent that municipal and state officials have begun
to focus on this critical issue, the bulk of their attention
has been on response efforts and not the more difficult
mitigation efforts. End Summary.

Waiting for the Big One...
2. (U) Lying just off of the Northern Anatolian fault line,
Istanbul (and its prior incarnations as Constantinople and
Byzantium) has experienced major earthquakes every 100 to 150
years during its long history. The question is not whether
an earthquake will occur, but rather when and how damaging it
will be. A sequential westward progression of major
earthquakes this century has led experts to believe that
there is now a 65 percent probability of a major earthquake
near Istanbul in the next 30 years. What troubles these
experts and municipal authorities is the fact that modern
Istanbul has grown in population from under a million to
approximately 12 million in just two generations. Most of
this vast expansion has taken place in the absence of
sensible land-use planning and earthquake-resistant
construction. These same problems led to the tens of
thousands of deaths in the 1999 Kocaeli/Izmit earthquake,
whereas similar magnitude earthquakes in developed countries
with modern urban planning and construction cause relatively
less damage (49 deaths in San Francisco/Oakland in 1989).

3. (U) Recent studies (including one funded by the American
Red Cross) indicate that a major earthquake (7.5 on the
Richter scale) in the immediate vicinity of Istanbul is
expected to claim 40-50,000 lives and cost USD 11-12 billion
in direct building damages (not including other property
damage, secondary losses in productivity, and a million or
more homeless). Severe shaking during the 1999 Izmit quake
claimed almost a thousand lives and damaged over 23,000
buildings in the Istanbul neighborhood of Avcilar (over 80 km
from the epicenter but consisting mostly of unstable land)
and forced Istanbul residents to flee their houses and
prompted many to sleep in the streets for days. Recent polls
suggest that the psychological damage has endured: 58 percent
of the city's residents are expecting a major earthquake, 29
percent have moved (or plan to move) to "safer"
neighborhoods, and 40 percent say that only their work
prevents them from leaving the city altogether. As recently
as July 9, rumors of an impending earthquake panicked
Istanbul residents until the Kandilli Observatory and
municipal authorities debunked the scare.

Challenges to Disaster Preparedness
4. (U) WHO'S IN CHARGE?: The problems and challenges involved
in preparing for an earthquake are considerable. They begin
with the question of authority. Outdated laws from the 1950s
(when Turkey was predominantly rural) formally delegate
disaster response to the national government and to its
representatives around the country (i.e., state-appointed
governors). The Civil Defense Directorate of the Ministry of
Interior employs 2000 people around the country, but their
mandate and training deal primarily with the Cold War threat
of nuclear attack, not disaster preparedness. Although an
Emergency Management Agency was created several years ago,
its role vis-a-vis other disaster management agencies remains
undefined. The scale of the problem in large urban areas,
moreover, is far beyond the capacity of local governors and
has been unable to attract sufficient resources from a
government preoccupied with an ongoing economic crisis. In
the absence of a national response on this issue of critical
concern, the Istanbul municipal authorities have stepped into
the vacuum, working closely with the governor's office and
local organizations to coordinate unified earthquake
preparations. But tension between municipal and state
authorities has created major problems, obstacles, and delays
in advancing the city's level of preparedness. Schools,
hospitals, and cultural heritage fall directly under state,
not municipal, control.

5. (U) RESPONSE VERSUS MITIGATION: Earthquake preparations
fall into two general categories: response and mitigation.
Major steps have already been taken with regard to upgrading
and reinforcing the city's ability to respond to an
earthquake (training rescue teams and firefighters,
pre-positioning supplies), but the much larger and more
expensive mitigation efforts have only just begun. The
Istanbul Muncipality, Turkish Red Crescent (with American Red
Cross assistance), and others have upgraded their response
preparations. Prof. Nuray Aydinoglu, head of the Kandilli
Observatory (Turkey's premier earthquake research institute)
told us that the response to the June 2003 Bingol earthquake
showed that the response situation had improved considerably
in the last five years, but added that mitigation efforts
were few and unorganized. Nasuh Mahruki, Chairman of AKUT (a
search-and-rescue NGO that achieved national fame for their
work after the 1999 Izmit earthquake), sardonically confirmed
to us that the city and other organizations seem to have
focused on the "glamorous" response preparations at the
expense of the more important preventive mitigation efforts.
Another earthquake engineer living in Bursa noted a similar
tendency on the part of municipal authorities there. Even
response preparedness has focused disproportionately on
"heavy" search and rescue (using machinery to save people in
collapsed buildings) instead of "light" search and rescue
(where neighbors and local communities pull victims from
rubble), which typically accounts for 80 percent of those

adopted modern building codes (judged to have up-to-date
seismic design provisions by the USGS) shortly before the
devastating Izmit earthquake. The new code, the product of
five years of work by expert commissions, was prompted by the
1992 Erzincan earthquake and largely tracked advances in U.S.
codes. Aydinoglu, who was also the primary author of the new
code, told us that he is primarily concerned with his failure
since the 1980s to get Turkey to strengthen the legislation
regarding testing and enforcement of building codes.
Currently, the professional qualification requirements for
those testing designs and examining buildings are extremely
low. An independent earthquake engineer told us separately
that the software that is used by architects to design
earthquake-resistant buildings is outdated and that engineers
testing the designs on behalf of the authorities use the same
software. Although earthquake insurance is mandatory, only
25 percent of buildings are believed to be insured and
insurance companies have yet to develop any expertise or
experience examining buildings.

7. (U) UNCHECKED AND UNPLANNED GROWTH: Despite the persistent
problems in design, however, the biggest problems for
municipal authorities are caused by poor land-use planning
and inferior construction. Both problems have been
exacerbated by the massive and largely uncontrolled waves of
rural-to-urban migration that have made Istanbul Europe's
largest city at approximately 12 million people. Municipal
authorities have been unable to cope with the flood of
immigrants, many of whom began their new lives in Istanbul
building unlicensed squatter (gecekondu, literally "landed by
night") settlements, often in "forest" or "state" lands.
Although a series of property amnesties has legalized many of
these buildings and neighborhoods, between 60 to 65 percent
of Istanbul's 1 million or so buildings were built without
proper construction permits (i.e., not according to the
approved plan or without a permit altogether). Government
plans for yet another property amnesty could spur another
wave of illegal construction and vastly complicate municipal
efforts to prepare for an earthquake (see septel) (Embassy
Comment: At the same time, these plans may be driven by solid
political reasons. End Comment).

8. (U) EARTHQUAKE VULNERABILITY: One of the major challenges
in Istanbul relates to the construction style and lack of
building expertise. Due to the ready availability of
affordable wood, most residences in California are built on
wooden frames, making them more ductile and
earthquake-resistant (although they are also more susceptible
to fires). Due to a scarcity of wood, most Turkish
residences are built on relatively more static reinforced
concrete frames. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge and
expertise regarding the proper use of transverse bars,
correctly-mixed concrete, and techniques to minimize moisture
and corrosion have made many of these structures
fundamentally unsound. These simple problems have greatly
increased Turkey's vulnerability to earthquake damage.
Statistics from the losses in past earthquakes indicate that
for every life lost in California, 10 are lost in similar
earthquakes in Japan, and 100 in Turkey.

corruption on the part of both building contractors and
municipal authorities has given rise to thousands of
sub-standard buildings that could become literal "death
traps" in the event of a major earthquake. According to one
expert, authorities simply are not sufficiently well trained
and paid to be able to resist corruption and properly enforce
building codes. The most common pattern of residential
construction has been for self-financing contractors to
conclude deals with land owners for permission to build in
return for handing over a specified number of the future
building's apartments. With municipal authorities already on
the take to overlook the illegal construction, the
contractors have little incentive to comply with costly
building codes. Instead, they cut corners, using inferior
materials and adding on unstable floors, to increase their
overall profits. It is these reinforced concrete, 4- to
10-story, static or non-ductile apartment buildings that are
at the greatest risk of damage or even "pancake"-style
collapse that has claimed the most lives in previous
earthquakes. Studies predict that a major earthquake in
Istanbul could result in between 5,000 and 6,000 such
pancaked buildings.

10. (U) PUBLIC FACILITIES: In the event of an earthquake, the
safety of schools, hospitals, and other government buildings
will be critical to minimizing damages and coordinating
assistance. These facilities, too, have yet to be thoroughly
examined and reinforced. One World Bank-funded study
examined 26 hospitals and determined that 86 percent of them
needed major repairs and reinforcements. The former Director
of the Kandilli Observatory and the then-Minister of Health
got into a nasty public quarrel over the failure to follow
through on the needed repairs. The Ministry of Education
inspected the local schools, evacuated a few of the most
unsafe, and is engaged in reinforcing many others. An
official from a major teachers' union told us, however, that
the examinations were cursory at best. Some cultural
heritage sites and museums have also begun to prepare for an
earthquake, but there is very little public funding available
for this work. The director of Topkapi Palace, for example,
has obtained corporate sponsorship and has implemented a
program, but the Hagia Sophia (which is expected to suffer
serious damage in a major earthquake) has yet to do more than
study the issue.

Mitigation: Step By Small Step...
11. (U) Despite the challenges, in addition to the
considerable work and organization that has been done on
disaster response preparations, municipal authorities have
also taken early steps to launch more comprehensive
mitigation programs. After overcoming obstacles and delays
imposed by state authorities, the city conducted a loss
estimation study and a geological survey with Japanese
assistance to identify the areas and neighborhoods in
Istanbul that are at greatest risk in an earthquake. A
consortium of universities, including Bogazici, Istanbul
Technical, Yilidiz Technical, and Middle East Technical
Universities, is set to complete a major study of economic,
legal, technical, and sociological factors to determine the
outlines for a mitigation project that will put all of
Istanbul's buildings through a screening process to identify
those that are at highest risk. Istanbul officials estimate
that the process will take about 10 years and cost as much as
USD 10 billion. A pilot project is due to begin shortly in
the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul. Separately, a contract
has also been awarded for retrofitting Istanbul's bridges.
Perhaps the most encouraging steps with regard to mitigation
have been taken by individuals sensitized to the dangers by
recent earthquakes. Although municipal authorities are still
powerless to strictly enforce land-use plans and building
codes, several earthquake experts have noted that individual
land-owners and contractors are much less likely now to build
in unsafe neighborhoods or to cut corners in construction.

Much Left to Do....
12. (U) Although much of what remains to be done will take
time and resources, there is also much that can be done at
relatively low cost. The American head of a 3-year old
USAID/OFDA disaster awareness project believes that one of
the key issues is to educate renters, property owners, and
builders on how to construct earthquake-safe buildings.
Simple measures and techniques that cost no more than 10
percent of the construction cost could make new buildings
much safer. Another potentially productive area of education
is non-structural mitigation efforts (properly fastening
shelves and objects within buildings). Fifty percent of
earthquake injuries and 10 percent of deaths are attributable
to non-structural causes. The USAID/OFDA project (with only
USD 530,000) has implemented a sustainable basic disaster
awareness program for teachers and students, but has been
unable to fully address these other critical education and
awareness problems.

13. (U) Because of the terrifying enormity of its scale and
cost, preparing for a major earthquake is the proverbial
elephant in the room that nobody in Istanbul really wants to
talk about. While the city does seem to have finally
acknowledged its presence, the bulk of its early efforts have
focused on the relatively easier and more glamorous task of
response preparations instead of the more difficult and
costly mitigation efforts. Bottom line: Istanbul remains
woefully unprepared for an earthquake. Inshallah (God
Willing), there will be enough time to advance major
mitigation and educational efforts before the big one hits.

© Scoop Media

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