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Fears over earthquake preparedness rock Istanbul

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly refer to Korkut Ozgenler as a geologist. He is an architect.]


Now to Turkey, which is stopping rescue efforts in all but two provinces after earthquakes caused tens of thousands of deaths in the southern part of that country and Syria. Far away, in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, people are wondering if they, too, are at risk. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that earthquake preparedness has become both a safety issue and a political issue.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The need for Turkey to be ready for an earthquake has long been a talking point for Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Istanbul mayor, then as Turkey's prime minister and now as president. In a 2021 speech on the Aegean earthquake that hit Izmir and other areas the year before, Erdogan said his government has been with the people, quote, "from the very first minute."


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Praise God. Our country has the fastest, most effective and practical disaster response system in the world.

KENYON: But one common response immediately after this month's earthquake and major aftershocks that brought buildings crashing down was, where's the state? Istanbul architect Korkut Ozgenler says his first reaction after seeing the scenes from Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep and other cities was one of overwhelming sadness, followed by anger.

KORKUT OZGENLER: It's very sad, and for me, as an architect, seeing all those buildings collapsed and people under the rubble, it's especially - it makes me actually furious. And then the question comes to Istanbul, is Istanbul vulnerable?

KENYON: His own answer to that question is yes. He says things improved with new laws and building codes after the 1999 quake that killed more than 17,000 people, but he says the job is far from finished.

OZGENLER: At the moment, people are sad and psychologically everyone is, like, even more scared that this could happen very soon in Istanbul as well. Rightly so, because so many buildings are at risk.

KENYON: After this month's quakes in the south, Istanbul's current mayor made a sobering announcement. He said some 90,000 buildings could be at risk if a major earthquake struck the city, and others put the number even higher. A cabinet minister says more than 50,000 buildings need to be demolished urgently. Erdogan is defending the government's quake response, but critics say even before this quake, there was lax enforcement of building codes and other failings. Gonul Tol, founding director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, wrote that corruption and mismanagement in Erdogan's government led to, quote, "the tragedy that struck my country."

Analyst Sinan Ulgen, director of Istanbul's Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, says the political impact of the disaster is almost certain to be negative for the government.

SINAN ULGEN: We don't really have poll numbers to indicate the political impact of this disaster. But nonetheless, ultimately, it's going to be a handicap for the ruling party.

KENYON: Ulgen says holding elections before the end of June is a constitutional obligation, but he can't rule out Erdogan trying to delay them anyway. Geologist Korkut Ozgenler says if the question is who is to blame, then contractors shouldn't be the only answer. He says it was the tenants, especially commercial tenants on the ground floors of buildings, who increased their space by knocking out load bearing walls, weakening the structures' integrity.

OZGENLER: They have blood on their hands, and that makes me really, really angry when I see this because you hand over the building and then it's the tenants who cause major damage to a building. I mean, you don't need a earthquake of 7.7 to see a building to fall over like this if there's no walls in the building or no core.

KENYON: Analyst Sinan Ulgen agrees building owners or tenants may be partly to blame, but ultimately, he says, it's up to the government to enforce the building codes on the books. With elections for the moment shrouded in uncertainty, people here watch anxiously for signs that the government is committed to preparing the country for the next major earthquake.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.