Golçuk, Turkey – Life is light-hearted in this corner of northwestern Turkey, simple and unhurried. Families mostly live in low-rise housing and walk in large green areas overlooking the waters of the Marmara Sea. Roads are modern and public infrastructure is brand new.
But it wasn’t always like that. In August 1999, the town of Golcuk was the epicenter of a magnitude 7.4 earthquake that shook Kocaeli province and the wider Marmara region to its foundations. Thousands of buildings collapsed like sandcastles and more than 17,000 people died across the region.
However, the devastation was followed by a systematic rebuilding process that has since transformed Golcuk into “the Paris of Kocaeli” – as some locals call it with a touch of pride – and a supposed safe haven in a country regularly plagued by earthquake disasters.
The most recent was a month ago, when two powerful quakes killed nearly 50,000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings in southern Turkey.
As the country tries to come to terms with the latest tragedy, many believe that rebuilding Golcuk could provide a glimpse of what successful rebuilding in affected southern cities could look like.
“We feel very safe here,” says Baki Kotan, a Golcuk resident and survivor of the 1999 earthquake. “It was rebuilt so much better that it attracted new people and investors.”
Kocaeli, the industrial heart of Turkey, is less than an hour’s drive from Istanbul. From the 1960s onward, it was a prime destination for people migrating from the rural East to the more developed West. This created a huge demand for cheap housing. In 1999, the region responsible for a third of the county’s economic growth and 45 percent of its industrial capacity.
But then, at 3:01 a.m. on August 17 of that year, the earth began to shake.
The shock lasted less than a minute, but the catastrophe was such that it took about three months to clear the debris, recalls Ismail Baris, the mayor of Golcuk at the time. A total of 15,000 buildings were destroyed in the city.
But as survivors struggled with the aftermath of the disaster, a post-earthquake recovery plan was quickly put into motion. Inspectors began conducting soil surveys, a practice not widely used before, to help them decide how to divide the area into zones for housing and economic activity.
The result was a radical reconfiguration of the city. Before the earthquake, construction was heavily concentrated closer to the sea, where profits were higher, but the soil was largely unsuitable due to its softness. “We had to move everyone from the north to the south,” said Baris, who remembered it as a big challenge, along with the excavation on harder ground on the south side.
The new structures were built according to strict rules that stipulate maximum heights of 3.5 floors and the use of stronger cement and thicker steel. Due to the smaller size of the buildings, more were needed to provide a roof for all the needy. This led to the identification of areas further afield that could accommodate the construction of new buildings. Today, these small permanent homes are mostly scattered throughout the region, including in the mountains around the town of Izmit, the regional capital of Kocaeli.
The housing rights were awarded through an international bidding process that required competitors to meet specific standards, such as using a special design that would make houses resistant to a magnitude 8 earthquake. In other cases, particularly in the rural areas where residents build their own wanted to rebuild the house, the Turkish government provided a three-phase funding program.
Still, those stranded in shelters throughout the process needed money. Ajay Chhibber, director of the World Bank in Turkey when the 1999 earthquake hit, recalled how families broke up as men moved to Istanbul in search of work, while others began selling blankets and clothes they had received as aid. “Even if you give them a tent and food, they still need money to survive without income for an extended period of time,” says Chhibber, whose team has set up a six-month cash relief program to kick-start the local economy. to bring.
The World Bank raised between $3 and $4 billion, Chhibber said, helping trigger an earthquake insurance system to encourage safe building practices and reduce costs. To allay concerns about corruption among donors, including the Islamic Development Bank and the European Investment Bank, the World Bank pushed for the appointment of a minister of state to the office of the prime minister, who became the institution’s main counterpart.
“By the end of 2004, the reconstruction was almost over,” Baris said. About 8,200 buildings were built in that phase, and even more in the years that followed. As a result, Golcuk’s pre-earthquake population of about 110,000 has since nearly doubled.
Today, the government is eager to continue reconstruction efforts in the 10 provinces affected by the February earthquakes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to rebuild these areas within 12 months, but some warn against haste.
“It took us 2.5 years to complete and it was considered the fastest rebuilding process in the world,” Chhibber said of the effort after the 1999 quake. take,” he warned.
“They should do this more carefully, as the affected people are so shocked that they don’t want to go back to unsafe buildings,” Chhibber said.
‘1999 only taught us on paper’
Golcuk is some 1,000 km (621 mi) from Kahranmanmaras, the epicenter of last month’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. But as soon as news of the distant disaster spread in the city, the trauma of 1999 resurfaced.
Kotan, the resident, said he has not watched television since February 6 so as not to relive the ordeal. Others, such as retired teacher Kemal Ekin, have said they barely slept, haunted by a recurring sense of unease about the inability to help people trapped in the rubble. His wife, Sahsine Ekin, described a feeling of suffocation. “I feel like I’m (stuck) under the rubble.”
The recent disaster has sparked similar feelings throughout the Northwest region, including in places where the destruction was not as bad as in Golcuk. In cities like Izmit, most of the damaged buildings have never been renovated in accordance with building codes, experts said. Therefore, some now rush to seek advice from trusted experts on how to inspect, strengthen or even rebuild their homes.
“Why do people call me?” asked Keramettin Gencturk, between answering phone calls and receiving people lined up in his office in Izmit. Gencturk, an imposing six-foot-tall engineer, saw his popularity soar after none of the buildings he built in the area collapsed in the 1999 earthquake.
“I don’t do too much. I just follow the rules!” he exclaimed, waving energetically the latest edition of the 2018 Earthquake Building Code.
After the 1999 quake, lawmakers introduced stricter building requirements, including mandatory building inspections and the use of better building materials, such as steel and concrete.
But the comparison of strikingly similar accounts of the 1999 and 2023 earthquake disasters suggests that while the rules became stricter, their enforcement was not always consistent.
Reports from the 1999 earthquake speak of cement rubble filled with so much sand that it could have crumbled with the touch of a hand. Other accounts describe steel bars in columns too thin to meet building codes.
Experts have also denounced the use of substandard building materials in recent weeks, saying the poorly enforced rules allowed people to take shortcuts. It wasn’t until 2019 that the government appointed inspectors to oversee the construction process — to do so, builders could hire the companies tasked with checking their constructions, a practice that insiders say allowed deals to take place behind closed doors. Multiple government amnesties, meanwhile, legalized thousands of buildings, exonerating building code violators as long as they paid a fine.
“1999 taught us something, but (only) on paper,” said Gencturk.
Turkish authorities launched an investigation against more than 600 people last month over buildings collapsed in the February 6 earthquakes, jailing 184 suspects awaiting trial.
The World Bank has calculated that Turkey will face direct damage from the recent earthquakes worth $34.2 billion – 4 percent of its gross domestic product in 2021. This is a conservative estimate, as the indirect or secondary effects of the earthquake on the country’s economy are not taken into account. with the bank’s warning that reconstruction costs may be twice as high.
Alper Dulger, head of the Izmit Chamber of Architects, said a quick and safe reconstruction was possible. The country has the manpower, know-how and new construction technologies to build more safely than in the 1990s, he added.
“We can handle this if we find the money,” Dulger said.
But the real challenge, he warned, was the return of old habits: “As long as people continue to expect to get away with an amnesty, the loop will continue.”