The Washington Post
Warnings mounted, buildings fell
Inaction in Turkish city preceded lethal quakes
The warnings had been coming for years: This city was unprepared for a powerful earthquake. Thousands of buildings were at risk. Again and again, over at least a decade, engineers, architects and planners had raised concerns about buildings that were shoddily constructed, built before inspection standards were tightened or erected on unsteady agricultural land in Adiyaman — a southern city of more than 290,000 people that sits along one of the world’s most active fault lines.
But by the time the ground began to shake on Feb. 6, local and national authorities had done little to protect people who lived in some of the city’s most vulnerable structures, residents and engineers said — despite evidence that disaster relief officials were keenly aware of the danger.
More than 6,000 people were killed in Adiyaman province, the government has said, most in the city itself. More than 1,200 buildings collapsed. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 buildings — or more than 10 percent of the city’s stock — were “heavily damaged,” Suleyman Kilinc, Adiyaman’s mayor, told The Washington Post.
Turkish officials have acknowledged delays in the initial rescue efforts. But they have also cast the tragedy as inevitable, given the startling magnitude of the two earthquakes — the “disaster of the century,” they call it — and the advanced age
of many of the buildings that collapsed.
“Ninety-eight percent of them were constructed before 1999,” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, referencing the year of Turkey’s last catastrophic earthquake, near Istanbul, which killed more than 17,000 people and led to a tightening of regulations and inspections.
But newer buildings, in Adiyaman and elsewhere, collapsed too. And there was no reason that older buildings could not have been vacated or reinforced, local experts in Adiyaman said. The risks were conveyed loudly and clearly in meetings with provincial, municipal and local disaster relief officials, participants said. In some of the meetings, experts showed simulations demonstrating how fast the ground would accelerate in a major earthquake and identified the parts of the city that faced the greatest danger.
They told government officials that the threat was “serious” and that “certain areas would need to be redone,” said Ulas Inan Sevimli, a professor of geological engineering at Adiyaman University, who took part in a series of meetings with officials from the local disaster relief agency beginning in 2020. The scale of destruction after the earthquakes was “expected,” he said.
“We have given the necessary warnings,” he added.
The warnings were deemed urgent enough that a report by AFAD, the government’s disaster management agency, released three months before the earthquakes identified grave weaknesses in construction practices, as well as nearly 1,600 buildings that were in need of an “urgent” risk assessment, including in the city center. It proposed a four-year project, ending in 2026, to identify buildings “with insufficient earthquake resistance” but did not say what action was supposed to be taken to protect the residents.
For Adiyaman, the recommendations were too little and too late.
And this city was not alone in its lack of preparation. Recent government risk assessments had identified worrying vulnerabilities to other communities in the earthquake zone in southern Turkey because buildings were unsafe, the ground below them was weak or citizens were not sufficiently aware of the risk. A 2021 report from Gaziantep province listed Nurdagi and Islahiye, two towns ravaged by the earthquakes, as among those likely to sustain damage.
The reports are now part of national reckoning over government lapses before the earthquakes, and have added to a growing unease among those living atop other fault zones in Turkey, including in Istanbul, its most populous city, where residents have begun demanding inspections of their buildings.
The destruction here spans the central Ataturk Boulevard, where people were fatally crushed in apartment blocks, two-story dwellings and a local hotel. South of the boulevard, gated developments, arranged around fountains and built on what was once farmland, lay in heaps. There is less rubble to the north, at the foot of the Karadag mountain, but buildings there collapsed, too. Few corners of the city were spared.
Prosecutors have fanned out across Adiyaman after the earthquakes, collecting samples to investigate why buildings collapsed. Some buckled in ways that suggest substandard design and construction, experts told The Post. Several of the city’s developers have been arrested.
Among the buildings that fell were three six-story apartment blocks that made up the Euphrates Complex, where more than 60 people died. A survivor of the collapse, Halil Yanardag, who had lived in one of the buildings since 2006, said he could not recall a visit by building inspectors or warnings from the authorities that the complex might be at risk from an earthquake — not even after cracks appeared in the concrete during a temblor three years ago in a town more than a hundred miles away.
During a large earthquake, he figured, he and his wife would sit it out in the garden of the complex, surrounded by cypress trees. But when it finally came, his building fell “in the first 10 seconds,” he said. “We never imagined it would be as severe as this.”
In the aftermath of the earthquakes, attention has focused on the perils of the housing boom under Erdogan’s government, as well as the granting of thousands of “amnesties” to buildings that did not meet safety standards.
But the problems here, housing specialists said, were more deeply rooted in a system long characterized by weak government oversight over unscrupulous or unqualified contractors, summed up in a maxim repeated by the city’s architects and engineers: The lives of Adiyaman’s residents had depended on the “conscience” of those who built their homes.
Despite recent improvements to the system, they said, aging dwellings were still vulnerable.
Kilinc, the mayor, said “there was not a lot of work done on fortifying” older buildings in Adiyaman, adding that the focus was on “serious controls” for new construction. The building that housed the mayor’s office was among those that collapsed on Feb. 6.
“In Turkey, unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of buildings from the past,” he said. “Buildings that are troublesome.”
Turkey’s earthquake building regulations were drawn up to keep pace with brisk population grown in urban centers that began in the 1960s, said Polat Gulkan, professor of structural engineering at Baskent University in Ankara. In Adiyaman and across the formerly agricultural south, this often meant building on converted farmland.
Historically, the Turkish government took a “laissez-faire” attitude to disasters, consisting mostly of promises to build new housing after old buildings were destroyed, he said. Seismic regulations written in 1975 were updated in 1998. After the deadly earthquake the next year, earthquake codes and rules for building inspections were tightened periodically, most recently in 2018. If followed, they would have prevented the kind of “shameful collapses” on Feb. 6, Gulkan said.
“That’s the goal,” he said. But the “practice” of structural engineering in Turkey was “not up to standards,” he said. “Newer buildings were built rapidly but, in general, shoddily.”
Osman Ozdemir, who has been the Adiyaman representative for Turkey’s Chamber of Geological Engineers for 19 years, witnessed the broken system firsthand. When he moved to the city in 2001 after finishing university in Istanbul, construction was being carried out “without ground studies,” he said.
“There were settlements on creek beds, meaning where there are high levels of underground water. There are areas where if you dig down two meters you can reach liquefaction,” he said, referring to a process during earthquakes when soil gives way, losing its ability to support the structure above it. He was among the first, he said, to bring a drilling survey machine to the region.
Until then, he said, “ground survey reports based on drilling were not produced” in several major cities in southern Turkey — including others that suffered losses during the latest earthquakes. Before 2003, basic engineering principles were not applied in the region. And even afterward, he said, corners were cut as developers tried to keep costs down.
The chamber of engineers repeatedly tried to raise alarms with the public, through the media, and with officials, including the local branch of AFAD, Ozdemir said. During meetings with the authority, including online during the pandemic, and another held in a local hotel in 2021, “We told them this: This earthquake can come and old buildings will absolutely not be able to withstand this earthquake — and that even if new buildings withstand the earthquake, they will be severely damaged.”
There were “7,279 buildings in the neighborhoods with the highest earthquake damage risk,” the AFAD report concluded. Nearly 60,000 people lived in them, it said. The report, called the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Plan, covered the year 2021 but was released in November 2022, according to the agency’s website. Similar reports were produced in other provinces.
The report outlined a list of alarming “weaknesses” in Adiyaman’s preparedness for earthquakes and other disasters. Local authorities, it said, were not working with expert engineers. Efforts at urban transformation — an approach used by Erdogan’s government to rebuild aging neighborhoods — were “proceeding slowly,” the report said, adding that there was a failure in Adiyaman to use “appropriate research methods” in zoning decisions.
The report said that drillers conducting ground and geological surveys were hobbled by “insufficient knowledge,” that most building contractors acted haphazardly because they were “unlicensed and have insufficient education levels” and that no one was adequately “tackling illegal, uncontrolled structures.”
Despite the warnings, the authorities “did not do any work and did not take any action,” Ozdemir said. “These reports went to Ankara and remained on dusty shelves. It continues, as it always does.”
Government officials suggested their hands were tied, said Sevimli of Adiyaman University. “They defended themselves, saying, ‘How can we tell people to leave their homes if they are not sturdy?’”
A spokesman for AFAD did not respond to questions about whether the government had acted on warnings provided to local disaster officials during the meetings.
Murat Kurum, Turkey’s minister for environment, urbanization and climate change, has in recent years said that some 6.7 million buildings in the country need to be rebuilt because of structural problems, including 1.5 million that urgently needed work. A spokesman for the ministry did not respond to questions about how many of the at-risk buildings were in Adiyaman, whether such buildings in the city had been inspected, and what action, if any, had been taken to minimize the danger.
Older buildings appeared to exist in a vacuum of regulation, experts said — left undisturbed by government inspectors unless residents raised safety concerns. But for residents, sounding the alarm could bring unwanted consequences, including having to pay to reinforce the building or striking a deal with a developer to rebuild a condemned structure.
“It is not possible for a citizen to do this. The citizen is already living in difficult economic conditions,” Ozdemir said.
The three apartment buildings in Adiyaman’s Green City Complex, which residents said was completed in 2005, did not collapse all at once. Building C toppled in the first earthquake, killing at least 24 residents. Their neighbors in Buildings A and B had nine hours to escape before the second earthquake brought their homes down as well.
Mustafa Kucukaslan, a 47-yearold civil servant who lived in Building B, went back to the apartment a few days after the earthquakes with his family, trying to retrieve some clothes from the rubble. He and his wife said they were unaware of any problems with the building, which seemed “strong,” as opposed to much older buildings in town that were clearly crumbling. They did not remember any visits from government inspectors.
A few days later, in an adjoining complex called Blue City, Mahmut Tekin, 53, stood on a large rubble mound, trying to reconstruct the building’s features as he reckoned with his loss. “My wife and son died here,” he said, pointing to a large, deep hole in the rubble. Tekin worked in Berlin and flew home to Turkey as soon as he heard the news. His son, Latif, 26, was planning to join him in Germany to work at a hospital there. When Latif ’s body was found, his mother was in his arms, Tekin said.
The developer of the Blue City complex was detained last week in Istanbul, according to state media. He is one of dozens of people, including developers and others involved in construction, swept up by authorities in the weeks since the earthquakes as Erdogan’s government wrestles with mounting public anger.
The Post shared videos and photographs taken in Adiyaman with more than half a dozen technical experts, including civil and structural engineers, architects and seismologists. Determining the exact cause of a building collapse requires in-person inspections, they said, and takes time. But there were patterns in the ruins of Adiyaman that pointed to likely flaws in the design and building process, they said, including inadequate seismic support in reinforced concrete structures.
In Green City and Blue City, as well as other developments, The Post found buildings that appeared to have collapsed in on themselves — a common sight in earthquake-damaged structures whose vertical elements have failed.
“The catastrophic collapses we see in the pictures where the columns have simply given way and the floors have pancaked on top of each other is due to a lack of lateral restraints and reinforced connections between the beams and columns,” said Emily So, a professor of architectural engineering at Cambridge University.
Short or insufficient “lap length” — the overlap of reinforcing bars — was also a possible issue in Adiyaman, she added, saying such design flaws can contribute to structural failures.
Widespread diagonal cracking in the exterior of buildings was evidence of shear, or the horizontal force created by the earthquake, said Jonathan Stewart, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. Though some may remain habitable, the buildings must be inspected for additional cracking in key structural areas, he said. “If that is present, it is possible that these structures are on the verge of collapse.”
Elsewhere, concrete appeared to have been shorn from tangles of rebar meant to reinforce it. Some rebar appeared smooth, not ribbed or “deformed” — a design that helps it to grip concrete.
An engineer who visited the Green City buildings with Post reporters showed how concrete chunks from the rubble could be easily pulverized.
“The crushability … of the concrete chunks is problematic,” Stewart said. “It suggests poor quality or inadequate cement, which is the bonding agent in concrete. This reduces the compressive strength.”
Some of the same observations were made by experts after Turkey’s last major earthquake, nearly a quarter-century ago.
“What you are describing is in line with what emerged from the 1999 earthquake,” So said. “The five- and six-story buildings were particularly prone to collapse and had doubtful construction quality.”
Erdogan, who is facing his toughest election yet in the coming months, has vowed to rebuild destroyed cities quickly and make new housing safer. During a trip Monday to Adiyaman, he said the government “will do whatever it takes to prepare all our cities for disasters as soon as possible,” including putting an end to the kind of building practices that experts said contributed to the city’s destruction.
“We will not allow construction in areas close to the fault line and in areas where soil liquefaction is experienced,” Erdogan said, adding that experts, including engineers, architects and city planners, were being consulted.
Many buildings in Adiyaman survived the earthquakes largely undamaged, including a library, a youth center and schools, local engineers said — proof, they added, that buildings considered precious could be protected. The new housing in Adiyaman would be built closer to the mountain, rather than on the plain below, Kilinc said.
“It is thought to be more suitable, but more ground studies are being done,” he said. “It is thought it will be more solid.”