"It was not like an earthquake ... I thought Armageddon had come." These were the words that we constantly heard from many people after the İzmit earthquake, the second deadliest earthquake in the history of the Turkish Republic, which hit with a magnitude of 7.6 on Aug. 17, 1999 at 3:01 a.m. in the Gölcük district of İzmit.
Since the last major earthquake in region occurred many decades ago, most of the locals had not experienced such a natural disaster, so it created huge fear among the public. Even the people whose houses were still standing lived in tents they put up in open areas in the cities. It took a couple weeks, even longer for some, to overcome their fear and return to their homes after the earthquake.
As mentioned above, the İzmit earthquake was the second deadliest and severe earthquake in Turkey after the Erzincan earthquake in 1939 that killed almost 33,000 people. The earthquake, which heavily hit industrialized and densely populated urban areas of the country, increased the severity of the loss of life and property. People in the region paid a great price. According to official statements, the death toll reached 17,480 and 23,781 people were wounded. However, some sources suggest the actual figure may have been more destructive. The financial loss also reached terrifying numbers. Reports from September 1999 show that 285,211 residences and 42,902 workplaces were damaged, nearly 133,000 shattered buildings left 600,000 people homeless. The estimated amount of damage was equivalent to nearly $10 billion.
The view of the Gölcük district after the earthquake.
Most of the city plan has changed, buildings in the district were rebuilt away from shores with unstable ground.
After the shock of the incident had passed, victims started to search for justice. Undoubtedly, contractors were the usual suspects. Surely, people knew that the severity of the earthquake was an important reason for the immense damage and loss. However, it was revealed that most of the collapsed buildings did not comply with building codes. For example, most buildings built by Veli Göçer, a contractor whose buildings were generally in Yalova province, collapsed due to insufficient materials and building conditions. The way he did business was not the only reason for him to gain notoriety. As an unfortunate coincidence, his surname connote the verb "to collapse" in Turkish, and this situation contributed to the process that turned him into a scapegoat. A total of 2,100 contractors were issued with negligence lawsuits after the earthquake, however, 1,800 of them remain inconclusive due to legal gaps.
The destruction of the İzmit earthquake led to transformation in the Turkish construction sector. Regulations about ground studies and the materials used in buildings are now set by the government. Moreover, legal punishments stem from omission during construction processes aggravated for responsible individuals. The location of new residential areas were places with solid ground instead of locations near shores with unstable ground. Storey restrictions were issued for risky regions. Despite the urban transformation process accelerated especially in metropolises, there are 175,000 buildings countrywide that carry risks if an earthquake was to hit, according to statistics by the Environment and Urbanization Ministry. The public believes the country still has a lot to do to reach 'Japanese standards'.
The 16th anniversary of the disaster have been commemorated throughout the country today. Various events took place in regions that were previously affected by earthquakes.Crowds gathered in the town of Gölcük in Kocaeli province on Monday to remember the tens of thousands of victims. At 3.02 a.m. local time – the moment a powerful tremor began shaking Turkey's northwestern region – people fell silent at the monument to mark the 7.6-magnitude quake.
Gölcük Mayor Mehmet Ellibeş, whose seaside town lost 6,000 inhabitants in the quake, said a "new Gölcük" had sprung up from the ruins and the "necessary lessons" had been learned.
Turkish Red Crescent Director-General Ahmet Lütfi Akar told reporters that the quake prompted significant reform within the organization, which was criticized for its poor response to the disaster. "Our disaster response systems have completely changed and were reorganized," he said, highlighting that the agency is now able to respond to any disaster in Turkey within two hours following the establishment of 33 response centers across the country.