Is İstanbul ready for a big earthquake? Aug. 17 is the 10th anniversary of the 1999 Marmara earthquake, which killed over 17,000 and left thousands homeless. Though 10 years have passed since the tragedy, İstanbul's readiness for a future disaster remains in question. According to geophysicists, Turkey has learned many lessons from earthquakes, the 1999 earthquake in particular, but preparations for the next one are still not sufficient. A group of experts convened in May to discuss the readiness of İstanbul, Turkey's most populous city, in the event of a major earthquake. Their findings were not very heartwarming: An earthquake with a magnitude of 7 would kill thousands of people in the city, according to experts. “İstanbul has so far experienced at least 50 quakes with a magnitude of 8. İstanbul still not being ready for a major earthquake saddens us. Though 10 years have passed since the 1999 quake, only a small number of schools and hospitals in İstanbul have been reinforced,” stated Cemal Gökçe, head of the İstanbul Chamber of Civil Engineers. According to Mustafa Erdik of Boğaziçi University's Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute, the expected number of fatalities in the event of a major earthquake has significantly dropped since 2000, but preparations cannot be deemed satisfactory. “Experts were expecting a death toll of around 40,000 for İstanbul before. Now the figure is around 22,000. This points to a decrease of around 50 percent. Despite the decrease, the feared number of fatalities is still too high,” noted Erdik. He also added that the most damage in the event of a big quake is expected in the Ambarlı and Tuzla areas of İstanbul: “We estimate that around 300,000 people will become unemployed. The total cost of the earthquake will be $2 billion.” Two devastating earthquakes hit Turkey within the space of less than three months in 1999. The first, with its epicenter in northwestern İzmit province, struck on Aug. 17, leaving some 17,000 people dead and thousands more homeless. The second struck just 100 kilometers away on Nov. 12, killing hundreds more. Of those deaths, 1,000 were in İstanbul, and many were blamed on substandard buildings erected by a construction industry rife with corruption. Turkey lies on a major fault line and has had 90 earthquakes higher than magnitude 5 since 1903. Former Kandilli Observatory Chairman Professor Ahmet Mete Işıkara believes one of İstanbul's main problems in terms of earthquake preparedness is the constructional weakness of its hospitals. “Entrepreneurs are turning apartment buildings into hospitals. This is dangerous,” he warned. An earthquake plan was launched after the 1999 quake, but experts complain no action has been taken on the studies commissioned. One such study completed in 2004 showed that of 16,000 buildings in one vulnerable area, around 2,300 were declared very high risk, or expected to collapse in a quake. Professor Okan Tüysüz, an academic at İstanbul Technical University, complained that officials in Turkey take almost no measures against future tremors. “Turkey is one of the countries that pays the heaviest costs for earthquakes. We have lost thousands of people in quakes. What did those who govern us do? They prepared a bad settlement system for political and individual gains,” he said. According to Tüysüz, İstanbul faces a 68 percent risk of being hit by an earthquake in the next 30 years. “If a fault line between İzmit and Mürefte breaks, the magnitude of the tremor will be 7.6. Such a tremor would result in the deaths of between 60,000 to 90,000 people. Additionally, up to 300,000 would be injured. Around 60,000 buildings would collapse, and the cost of the quake for the country would be $40 billion,” the professor added. According to data provided by the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects' Chambers (TMMOB), of the roughly 16 million buildings in Turkey, 40 percent were constructed illegally -- and around 67 percent of all buildings do not have an occupancy permit. “Turkey has dragged its feet in the 10 years since the major Marmara earthquake in 1999. Decisions made immediately after the quake have not been implemented yet. We have to revise our urbanization system. We have to closely monitor all buildings being constructed. Otherwise we will face unimaginable tragedy in the event of a natural disaster,” stated Serdar Harp, board chairman of the TMMOB. Harp also complained that the reinforcement of buildings against a future earthquake was proceeding too slowly. “Only 55 of 2,123 hospitals have been reinforced since the Marmara quake. This figure is 276 out of 5,022 for schools, and 764 out of 1,082 for state buildings,” he said. A major quake in the near future? Geophysicists seem to disagree over the prospects of a major earthquake in or around İstanbul in the near future. Professor Naci Görür from İstanbul Technical University voices his expectation of a big tremor in the city in the very near future, claiming that the fault line under the Marmara Sea remains active. According to Geophysical Society of Turkey (GST) Honorary President Professor Ahmet Ercan, however, the Marmara region is not likely to be struck by an earthquake before 2015. “There are no signs of an earthquake from the geophysical measurements taken from the Marmara region. There is no finding that suggests an earthquake is imminent,” he said, adding: “I don't expect a large earthquake to take place in the Marmara region. There is no indication of this. Therefore, according to my findings, there is no likelihood of an earthquake until at least 2015.” He warned that two earthquakes may occur in the Sakarya trench, which is the region between Kaynaşlı and İzmit, before 2025. “Tension is accumulating faster in this region than in İstanbul. Therefore, there is a higher risk of an earthquake occurring,” he said. The head of the Kocaeli branch of the Turkish Search and Rescue Society (AKUT), Recep Şalcı, expressed worry that all the search-and-rescue teams in Turkey would not be adequate if İstanbul were struck by a quake with a magnitude of half of what's expected. “Almost 97 percent of people trapped under buildings in the 1999 earthquake were saved by the public. Search-and-rescue teams were able to save only 3 percent of them,” he said. Şalcı also drew attention to the risky situation of the northwestern province of Kocaeli in the event of a major quake in İstanbul. “Everyone is worried about İstanbul, but no one thinks about Kocaeli. What would happen to Kocaeli if İstanbul were struck by a big tremor? Is Kocaeli prepared for a major quake? Unfortunately not,” he noted.