Poverty, Code Issues Contribute to
Extensive Earthquake Damage in Turkey
BUFFALO, N.Y., August 19, 1999--Building collapses following Tuesday's earthquake in
Turkey probably were caused, in part, by inadequate building materials and by problems
with establishment and enforcement of proper building codes, according to researchers at
the University at Buffalo and the university's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake
Engineering Research (MCEER).
Gokhan Pekcan, Ph.D., a
postdoctoral researcher in earthquake engineering at UB and the center, and a native of
Turkey, explained that when people move to the cities from rural villages, they have few
financial resources. "Often, they end up building their own homes or buying or
renting relatively less expensive houses, which may typically be constructed with
inadequate materials, leaving them especially vulnerable to earthquake damage," he
said. "They build mostly reinforced concrete and masonry buildings, but they
may not make them strong enough."
This accounts for the fact that in the more affluent areas of Istanbul, for example,
many buildings and high-rises were left unharmed while in poorer areas, devastation was
widespread. "Many of the apartment buildings also have 'soft' first stories,
meaning that because they contain open garages or storage spaces on the ground floor, they
have no significant walls that can support the weight of the structure during an
earthquake," he said. "Moreover, in some of the buildings, inadequate
reinforcement in supporting columns resulted in the collapse of entire structures."
At the same time, the UB researchers said, while Turkey's building codes have improved
during the last 20 years, they are not well-enforced.
"There are buildings in Turkey that were built during the last 20 years that still
failed during this quake," said Andrei Reinhorn, Ph.D., professor
and chair of UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and an
MCEER researcher. "The codes are good, but there is inadequate supervision of the
Reinhorn, who is an expert on developing earthquake mitigation systems and seismic
codes for buildings, lived for 16 years in Israel, and said that the problem is widespread
throughout the Middle East and in rapidly developing areas with few resources."My
colleagues in Turkey have told me that they have, for years, warned authorities about the
safety of buildings there and no action has been taken," he said. He added that in
the quake's aftermath, there undoubtedly will be controversies about the amount of damage
sustained and how much of it could have been prevented, had there been better enforcement
of building codes.
He noted that similar issues exist in the U.S., although perhaps not to the same
extent. "Enforcement is a bit better in the U.S., but 90 percent of construction in
the U.S. is residential, which is not built under the close supervision of any structural
engineer. My house, for example, has never been seen by an engineer, except for the fact
that I live in it."Even in areas that are prone to quake damage, like on the West
Coast, he said, residential construction does not follow any seismic codes.
So could damage from a similar-sized quake in the U.S. be just as catastrophic?
According to Reinhorn, probably not, since the population density in the U.S. is much
lower. "In this country, residential construction is based on single-family
homes, not multi-family apartment buildings, so when you do have a disaster, the severity
of the losses would be somewhat lower," he said.
Reinhorn added, "MCEER seeks to help establish
earthquake-resilient communities by considering the societal and economic aspects involved
in the design and retrofit of buildings and infrastructure, as well as in emergency
response and recovery efforts. These efforts will perhaps lead to changes in construction
practices that include engineering solutions that are economically feasible and political
and socially acceptable to community residents."