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  • á Turks Blame Inadequate Building Codes

    A woman in Golcuk, Turkey, sits opposite her destroyed home, part of which fell into the Sea of Marmara after Tuesday's earthquake. Extensive damage is being blamed on lax building codes. (AP)
    By R. Jeffrey Smith
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Saturday, August 21, 1999; Page A1

    YALOVA, TurkeyŚMetin Kocal, the wealthiest and most prominent man in this resort city, is nowhere to be seen. After Tuesday's earthquake collapsed two six-story buildings that he erected, dooming some of the city's elite in apartments that had the area's highest price tags, Kocal undoubtedly understood that showing up at the site could place him in substantial danger.

    "He hasn't come here, and I don't expect him to," said Yakup Kocal, Yalova's recently elected mayor and a relative of the contractor. In a few minutes in which at least four of Metin Kocal's prominent structures collapsed, evidently killing dozens of people, he was transformed from a pillar of society into a pariah.

    Turkey, whose residents have enjoyed relatively cheap housing for years, is up in arms about the lack of attention to construction standards that spelled the difference at 3:02 a.m. Tuesday between life and death for many among more than 10,000 dead. [The Associated Press reports that the death toll has exceeded 12,000.] Imams are denouncing contractors in mosques, the nation's media are in full battle cry, and the government is threatening criminal prosecutions.

    As experts sift through the rubble of thousands of collapsed and cracked buildings -- including Kocal's -- throughout the quake zone in northwestern Turkey, they are repeatedly finding cement debris filled with so much sand that it crumbles in their hands. The steel rods buried inside the columns between concrete slabs are typically thinner and weaker than building codes demand.

    As many officials here have been quick to point out, the earthquake -- which registered 7.4 on the Richter scale -- was immensely powerful, and it instantly shook thousands of structures to the ground. Government spokesman Sukru Sina Gurel told reporters in Ankara, the capital, that while building codes "have not been followed through," the quake was so strong that "it would have destroyed many buildings that were up to the standard."

    But the fact that a much larger number of structures in the same cities and towns remained intact, including many adjacent to those that collapsed, suggests that much of the damage was preventable. People desperately searching in the debris for loved ones, officials who ostensibly monitored the construction process, architects and engineers -- all agree that the system for ensuring that homes are safe in a well-known earthquake zone failed.

    In fact, no real system has existed here for years. Throughout Turkey, virtually all homes are built without inspections by the bankers, insurers, independent analysts and government authorities who are typically present at construction sites in Europe and the United States. A single license is granted to begin building, and no further inspections occur.

    As a result, the construction of safe housing here depends almost entirely on honor and trust -- yet developers who cut corners can lower prices and still make huge profits. Until now, there has been little clamor for more safeguards. Neither had the government stepped in to look out for those who needed them.

    "Buildings have been built without considering the proper rules and with a lack of control," said Erol Cekur, governor of Istanbul province, where 436 people died and at least 2,670 were injured in their homes. "It's no doubt that [the collapses] were due to construction failures."

    Ilmaz Gurer, general secretary of the Turkish Contractors Association, agrees that "the construction industry is not controlled."

    Engineers here say there are no secrets to building homes that will survive an earthquake. The key is not to build on particularly vulnerable sites, and to employ strong materials with elastic features, such as thick steel bars that can sway without breaking. The height of buildings must be strictly limited; in this area, most experts say structures should have had no more than four floors instead of the typical six.

    None of these cautions were heeded, a circumstance that Jerry Leonard, a 42-year member of Britain's Hampshire Fire Rescue Squad, says he has seen before. "This is consistent with the Armenian earthquake" in 1988, he said, shortly after helping to pull a woman in her fifties from mounds of debris where a resort on the Sea of Marmara once stood. "It's the pancake effect. It's just supports and slabs, and it just can't take the shaking."

    Two trends are apparent here, as well as in Izmit, Sakarya and Golcuk, which were among the hardest-hit places. Newer buildings were more prone to collapse, suggesting that construction here is getting worse at a time when the United States and other nations are paying increased attention to earthquake threats. And those built for government use -- and apparently subject to stricter scrutiny -- are intact.

    As Naim Ardic, 36, the fire chief in Yalova, said, "Seventy-five percent of the old buildings are still safe," while 90 percent of the collapsed buildings were constructed in the past decade. "The new construction is not as secure . . . because of the hard economic situation we are having. We are stealing from the raw materials when we build a house. There is not enough iron or cement."

    Across the street from the city stadium, as bulldozers and cranes tried to find survivors in the luxury apartment house at 2 Kazim Karabakir St., Recep Basatik said he would grab Metin Kocal by the throat if he saw him -- "the pig." Basatik lost his daughter, Handan, inside the building on her 17th birthday; at least 50 others also perished. More people were killed in the collapse of three floors in two other buildings that Kocal built next door.

    Efforts to reach Kocal were unsuccessful, but Yalova's chief building inspector, Mulet Kuleli, said he is aware of the crumbly concrete in the rubble of Kocal's buildings and promised that photos would be taken before it is hauled away.

    Kuleli confirmed that the only inspection that the city conducts occurs before any construction begins. "We have the right" to conduct additional inspections, he said, but cannot afford to do so with the meager budget provided by city hall.

    "The problem is that those who build every building have the only responsibility" to ensure it is done correctly. Kuleli added that he considers Kocal a careful builder.

    None of the financial incentives for safe construction in foreign nations is present in Turkey. Most apartment construction is financed by monthly contributions from aspiring tenants, so owners rarely take out bank loans; if they do, the terms require repayment in just a year or two. As a result, few banks and insurance companies become involved, and they rarely require inspections.

    The consequences of inattention became more serious because of a wave of urbanization during the last decade, which pushed this resort's year-round population from 30,000 to 150,000 and Istanbul's from 1 million to 10 million -- creating a huge demand for cheap housing.

    "Industrial investments were made in places that were risky for earthquakes," said Eyup Muhen, 37, a general secretary of the Turkish Chamber of Architects. "The investors wanted it and the government did not object."

    The problem is so widespread, he said, that if the earthquake's epicenter had been in Istanbul, a million people would have perished. Moreover, enforcement is lax even when the government does step in. Muhen said the group filed suit against the construction of a Ford Motor Co. plant due to earthquake hazards, and the court agreed to shut it down. But construction continued, he said, and the plant operated until the earthquake forced a halt to production.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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