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Earthquake strikes eastern Turkey

The earth, it seems, is literally shaking. I awoke this morning to news of a strong earthquake that has struck eastern Turkey, killing at least 57 people.

The 6.0-magnitude quake, centered on the village of Basyurt in Elazig province, struck in the early morning, while most were still asleep in their beds. It has been followed by more than 30 aftershocks.

Elazig Governor Muammer Erol said the majority of deaths had occurred in the nearby villages of Okcular, Yukari Kanatli and Kayali — villages where most homes are made of bricks of mud. Rescue teams have been deployed to find survivors trapped under rubble.

While Turkey’s loss pales to the magnitude of the recent tragedies in Haiti and Chile, all three tragedies lead to one important question: Isn’t it time to identify the cities around the world most prone to earthquakes before the next tragedy strikes?

Today’s quake occurred in eastern Anatolia, and struck down villages. But Istanbul is no safer. Turkey’s largest city is one of a host of quake-threatened urban centers in the developing world where populations have swelled far faster than the capacity to house them safely.

From a recent NYTimes article by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin:

The city is rife with buildings with glaring flaws, like ground floors with walls or columns removed to make way for store displays, or a succession of illegal new floors added in each election period on the presumption that local officials will look the other way. On many blocks, upper floors jut precariously over the sidewalk, taking advantage of an old permitting process that governed only a building’s footprint.

Worse, Dr. Erdik [the director of an earthquake engineering institute in Turkey] said, as with a doctor’s patients, not all of the potentially deadly problems are visible from the outside, and thousands more buildings are presumed to be at risk. “Little details are very important,” he said. “To say that a building is in bad condition is easy. To say that one is safe is hard.”

Istanbul has an earthquake master plan drawn up for the city and government, but progress in carrying out its recommendations has been slow. With so many immediate and pressing issues plaguing the city — crime, 14 percent unemployment, and merciless traffic — it’s hard to focus the attention and purse strings of Turkey’s politicians on a problem that may or may not happen at some unknown point in the future.

That said, Istanbul is taking some precautions after seeing the tragedies that have shook South America recently, tightening building codes, requiring mandatory earthquake insurance and requesting loans from international development banks for buttressing or replacing vulnerable schools and other public buildings.

But as Roger Bilham, a seismologist at the University of Colorado who has spent decades studying major earthquakes around the world, explained to Mr. Revkin: “Without vastly expanded efforts to change construction practices and educate people, from mayors to masons, on simple ways to bolster structures … Haiti’s tragedy is almost certain to be surpassed sometime this century when a major quake hits Karachi, Pakistan; Katmandu, Nepal; Lima, Peru; or one of a long list of big poor cities facing inevitable major earthquakes.”