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Why Did a Turkish City Withstand the Quake When Others Crumbled?

For miles around the small Turkish city of Erzin, the earth is shattered and buildings are razed, towns and cities turned into tombs of concrete by last week’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

But Erzin still stands, an oasis of stability near the Mediterranean, where the question of why the city weathered the quake and a powerful aftershock — and so many others did not, leaving more than 40,000 dead in Turkey and Syria — is consuming the population. In Erzin, the mayor said, no one died and not a single building fell.

The mayor almost immediately seized the moment to boast that he had long prevented slipshod construction, now the focus of the authorities around Turkey. But engineers and scientists credited other factors combining to save the city, like better construction that followed the latest seismic codes, and Erzin’s lucky location on very solid ground.

“Soil condition is the main reason why we don’t have heavy damage,” said Omer Emre, a geomorphologist who has spent 40 years studying the region’s fault lines and now works with a private research group, Fugro.

Erzin lies less than 50 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, closer than cities to the south like Iskenderun and Antakya. But Antakya was devastated, much of it reduced to rubble, and Iskenderun was badly hit, with a major fire at the port, seawater flooding the streets, and apartments and shops destroyed.

Residents are seen outside a tent providing aid and shelter to some who cannot return to their homes due to structural damage, in Erzin.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Many cities and villages of the region were built atop the layers of sand, silt and clay of an ancient riverbed. That soil, like the soft coastal ground beneath Iskenderun, was more susceptible to shaking, Mr. Emre said.

“These soft, water-laden sediments make cities and villages uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes,” he said. When one strikes, he added, “this land, it moves like a wave.”

In contrast, Erzin stands higher above sea level, and is built on hard ground comprising “bedrock and coarser grains than sand,” said Tamer Duman, a geographer.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
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  • Miraculous Rescues: Two brothers who rationed protein powder while trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building for about 200 hours were among those rescued in Turkey a week after the quake.
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The hard soil acts as a shock absorber between structures and a quake’s waves, reducing buildings’ sway, he said.

Geologists said there were other cases where harder soil had curbed the damage, including in 1999, when a small village called Tavsancil withstood a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that killed thousands in western Turkey. And across the zone rocked by last week’s quake and hundreds of aftershocks, there are many striking examples of neighborhoods largely intact when other parts of the same cities were leveled, prompting residents to wonder what accounted for the differences.

In one of the world’s most seismically active regions, Turkey has long had seismic codes for builders, upgraded over the last few decades. The authorities have now turned their attention to finding contractors who could be held responsible for collapses, and have already detained dozens. Builders have been accused of using cheap materials and skirting building codes to expedite projects and fatten profits — erecting structures that could not survive quakes.

Taking up that theme, Erzin’s mayor, Okkes Elmasoglu has framed himself as an unsung hero who stopped bad builders.

“With serious determination, the mayor hasn’t allowed for illegal construction in the past four years,” said an adviser to the mayor, Eray Guner, asserting that his office had reported nefarious contractors to prosecutors and ordered demolitions of shoddy projects.

The damaged mosque in Erzin.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Several engineers downplayed the mayor’s claims, but acknowledged that the city had good engineers, and that lax law enforcement had played a role in the devastation outside Erzin.

“This is our problem in Turkey: Anyone in this country with land can decide to build — a butcher, a farmer, a chef,” said a civil engineer from Iskenderun, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution for criticizing the government’s oversight.

He said that many developers were inexperienced and uneducated about regulations, like the seismic code for strong foundations.

“I’ve picked up concrete that fell through my fingers like sand,” said the engineer, who had traveled to Iskenderun to survey for evidence of malpractice. He described beams that were too thin, made of cheap steel and connected by flimsy fixtures. “An earthquake was not the real killer here,” he said. “This was about the quality of our construction.”

Others echoed recent criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government over legislation, enacted a few years ago, that allowed property owners to pay a fee to have construction violations forgiven without bringing their buildings up to code.

“We told the government to impose engineering inspections before granting amnesty,” said Orhan Sarialtun, a board member of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, a group often at odds with Mr. Erdogan’s party.

Mr. Sarialtun also said that builders who wanted to bypass regulations would set up private inspection firms on behalf of relatives. “They began to inspect themselves,” he said.

Now, he said, inspection companies and city governments should be investigated alongside builders. “Coming down only on contractors is shoving the responsibility off the government’s shoulders,” he said.

A resident is seen with her parrot outside a tent where she was temporarily sheltering as she cannot return to her home due to structural damage, in Erzin.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

He attributed Erzin’s good condition to the fact that it had largely developed over the last two decades, with better construction following the latest seismic codes. “The buildings were constructed abiding by the regulations,” he said. “Otherwise, it would have collapsed as well.”

Many residents applauded local engineers. During the earthquake, Hasan Aksoy said, he was jolted awake by the swaying of his sixth-floor apartment — in one of the district’s tallest buildings.

“The building was dancing,” said Mr. Aksoy, 39. He waited several minutes for the movement to slow, then spirited his wife and two children outside. The next day, he called the building’s engineer, a friend, to thank him.

“This quake is a testament to his good work,” he said.

His friend, Cem Erzinli, said he had received a flurry of similar calls from residents.

“Erzin deserves its moment to shine,” he said.

Others were bluntly critical of city leaders. “This had nothing to do with our mayor,” said Seref Vural, a local official.

“Our mayor’s brags have only ensured that aid will not reach our people who are still sleeping in the streets,” he said, referring to thousands of residents who do not feel safe returning home yet.

Cem Erzinli, a building contractor, in Erzin.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The mayor’s office declined to comment on criticisms from residents. But nearly 10 days after the earthquake, even as life regained a degree of normalcy, many still felt an intense fear about unstable buildings.

“We thought it was doomsday,” said Ayse Al, a 46-year-old landlord who, with about 30 tenants, was staying in one of the many relief tents dotting street corners and parks. She said that she and the others were still too afraid to return to home, though she added, “Of course we feel we are lucky — we have no casualties.”

Reminders of the earthquake are visible in many places: cracks through storefronts, fractures along buildings of the city’s main drag, debris from a mosque minaret, crumbled on the sidewalk.

“It is surreal,” said Mr. Erzinli, adding that it was nothing like the sprawling destruction not far away. Originally from Iskenderun, the devastated port city, Mr. Erzinli had spent two days searching for a friend there, in the rubble near the ruined city center.

“A few days earlier we were laughing and drinking tea — then I got a call that he was missing,” he said. His friend’s family only recovered his body this week.

A school converted into an aid depot in Erzin.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
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