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Earthquake exposes weak infrastructure

On this day in 1999, an earthquake in northwestern Turkey kills more than 17,000 people and leaves more than 250,000 homeless. The immense disaster exposed serious problems with government and building contractors in Turkey.

The Northern Anatolian fault runs parallel to the south shore of the Black Sea in northern Turkey. It is on a small plate, 10 miles beneath the surface, between the Arabian and African plates. Tremors struck the area in 1942 and 1944, but in the years afterward it became the most populated region in the country, home to upwards of 20 million people.

At 3:02 a.m. on August 17, a 7.4-magnitude quake struck, centered in Izmit, a coastal town not far from Istanbul. The quake devastated a large area, bringing down an estimated 40,000 homes and other buildings and igniting a terrible fire at an oil refinery in Bursa. In Yalova, 90 percent of the houses were demolished and, in Golcuk, hundreds of soldiers were trapped in the rubble of an army building. Bridges collapsed and roads were buried.

Compounding the tragedy, the Turkish government was not well-prepared for the disaster. Many people were trapped under collapsed buildings and homes, and the government was unable to send any rescue crews for days. Israel sent the first major rescue team; many other nations followed. With the Turkish government slow to respond, thousands of volunteers from other parts of the country flooded the area as they heard about people begging in the streets for help in saving their trapped relatives. Unfortunately, this may have caused more problems than it solved, as the extra traffic clogged available roads, making it difficult for experts to reach the affected areas. Still, survivors were pulled out for days after the earthquake. A 95-year-old woman was rescued by Austrian workers four days later. The last survivor was pulled out from the rubble six days after the disaster.

The earthquake also exposed serious problems with the building industry in Turkey. Many of the region’s newer buildings collapsed in an instant when the quake struck. It was revealed that, in many building projects, cheap iron rods had been used and there was too much sand mixed in the concrete, resulting in structural instability. It became clear that building regulations had not been enforced. In response, contractors, engineers and building owners were arrested throughout the area. Veli Grocer, a contractor in Yalova, had his house burned down by angry victims and was eventually forced to flee from the country.

Aftershocks continued for months and, on November 15, a 7.2-magnitude quake centered near Duzce killed another 400 people.

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