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180pxl.gif (2691 bytes)Social, Political Response: Kocaeli, Turkey  Earthquake, August 17, 1999

by William A. Mitchell, Professor of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies, Baylor Universitynavyhr.gif (1032 bytes)

Over the past quarter of a century, I have studied several earthquakes in Turkey. As an active seismic zone, Turkey frequently experiences devastating shaking. Again and again, buildings collapse, people and animals die, houses and settlements are rebuilt, and the public soon forgets. In the 1970 Gediz, the 1976 Lice, the 1983 Erzurum-Kars, the 1992 Erzincan, the 1995 Dinar, and the 1998 Ceyhan-Adana disasters, the emergency response was fairly consistent and predictable. Survivors on the scene were the first to begin search and rescue, with their bare hands, without lifting equipment, listening devices, sniffing dogs, or lights in the darkness. Local press and visual media were quickly on the scene, followed hours later by foreign search and rescue teams, then even later by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and governmental organizations. Usually the Prime Minister and/or President quickly arrive on the scene, asking the victims to accept this "act of God," and promising that the settlements and homes will be rebuilt quickly.

The initial response to the 03:02 hours, August 17 earthquake in Turkey was similar to the above response. The Prime Minister’s national crises action center reportedly was activated on day one, followed by provincial and township crises center activation. But here is where this earthquake is different. The event was centered in Turkey’s industrial and heavily populated region surrounding the Marmara Sea. About 15 million urban people, including some of the wealthiest, best trained, best educated, and professional elitist reside in the roughly 200 km belt stretching from Duzce (Bolu) in the east to Tekirdag in the west. Quickly, television and newspaper reporters descended on the scene and were broadcasting to the nation from town after town that suffered casualties and damages. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, and thousands of people died (15,032 officially, but an estimated 30,000 are unaccounted for). Professional search and rescue efforts were slow to respond, and the public viewed this live without censorship. For about two days, live cameras showed the enormous strain on the survivors and the lack of government or military response. The press was exceptionally critical about the lack of Turkish search and rescue and the slow response of the military to help. Several days after the earthquake, a reportedly 50,000 soldiers (asker) were helping in the disaster area. Many people perceived a disproportional amount of rescue equipment taken to the naval base at Golcuk.

The basic difference from all other earthquake disasters in Turkey is that the populace has mobilized massive public opinion that questioned the government and military institutions in Turkey. For the first time to my knowledge, the Army was consistently criticized for its lack of timely action (one person said the Army could have at least responded and helped direct the chaotic traffic resulting from people fleeing the area and thousands traveling to the area to search for family or friends) and credibility of the government. Governmental criticism was directed toward its inability to quickly and adequately respond for search and rescue, and for its alleged acceptance of or condoning corrupt contractors and builders. Local, provincial, and national officials were openly criticized as greedy people who took bribes and willingly permitted violations of zoning codes and construction codes.

On the positive side, unlike any past disaster events, there was overwhelming displays of humanitarian gestures from Greece. Greek-Turkish relations appear to have greatly warmed and improved due to the Greek response to the situation. The Greek Prime Minister, along with the mayor of Athens, quickly visited the site and conveyed personal condolences to the Turkish people. Additionally, a Greek search and rescue team, doctors, and volunteers for blood donations, along with an outpouring of Greek towns and clubs sending best wishes and various money and material donations, poured into Turkey .

In summary, this earthquake clearly demonstrated that improperly constructed buildings kill people. It also showed that Turkey is in dire need of an emergency management plan that is effective from top down, and bottom up. It needs to be created from scratch and practiced frequently. Further, the mind set of "fatalism" needs to be openly debated and studied. Finally, bribery and corruption need to be addressed and corrected. Shutting down a newspaper for a week because it "demoralized the public with its news coverage (The Radikal was very critical of the government response and it did show very disturbing scenes from the victims)" will not correct the problem. This time, Turkey suffered a great loss, but the densely populated city of Istanbul (except for Avciler and about 900 people), with its 9 plus million people, escaped massive destruction and a high number of deaths. Severe earthquakes have been marching down the North Anatolian fault for years, traveling from the east to the west. Each one has gotten closer to Istanbul. The August 17 disaster may be a catalyst that motivates appropriate preparation for the next "big one."

Note: Professor Mitchell was also part of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute's (EERI) reconnaissance team. Additional information is posted on EERI's web site at

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