One Million Gone in 30 Seconds

“1 Million Dead in 30 Seconds” — that’s one scary headline on Claire Berlinski’s new City Journal article:

While it is very expensive to tear down and replace, or reinforce, inadequate housing, it isn’t expensive at all to bolt heavy goods to the walls or to move heavy furniture away from beds. Rarely is this done in Istanbul. The odd thing is that everyone does fear the coming quake. Last year, a minor jolt panicked the city and sent the Turkish word for earthquake, deprem, to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, but almost no one knows what to do if it happens, or cares to know. I know many people in Istanbul who are wealthy enough to live in safer buildings but don’t.

They are fully aware of the risk. When asked why they don’t do anything about it, they shrug. They’re fatalistic. Most Turks think day to day, not long-term.

Contrast Turkey with Japan, where “there’s no such thing as an honest mistake,” as one American who has lived there for years puts it. “Every mistake is a moral failure. In other words, you should have worked harder, you should have prepared better, you should have been more careful. So even their [emergency] practice drills have to be rehearsed. Everybody has practiced.” After the March quake, journalist Kirk Spitzer, who lives in Japan, wrote about the culture of earthquake preparedness there: “Our shelves are lined with rubberized material to keep glasses and plate-ware from sliding; nothing fell over and broke, not even delicate champagne glasses we brought from Paris. Elsewhere, floor-mounted latches kept bedroom and hallway doors from slamming or breaking loose. Picture rails built into the ceiling kept even heavy frames from crashing to the floor.”

Ordinary, middle-class Japanese people take these steps to protect their drinking glasses. Many museums in Istanbul fail to take similar steps to protect priceless sculptures, ceramics, and cuneiform. They sit unsecured on pedestals or underneath light fixtures that would fall on them in heavy shaking. The storage rooms, according to people who work in them, are a hazard zone. This isn’t a matter of comparative wealth; it’s a matter of culture.

You see a similar failure to turn worry into action at the governmental level. Local officials in the municipality of Beşiktaş have elaborate earthquake plans—they showed them to me in a PowerPoint presentation. But they exist only on PowerPoint, where they have existed since 2008 without any progress made toward implementation. This is characteristic of the great majority of earthquake plans drawn up in Turkey since the 1999 quake. No one knows about them—certainly not the public; they look quite thorough, but they do not translate into action. No one seems to have the authority to act on the plans. No one seems to have the authority to release whatever funds would be needed to implement them. No one seems even to know who would have that authority. The funds and grants awarded by various international development agencies for retrofitting and earthquake preparation simply disappear.

Fatalism kills. Short-term thinking kills. But above all, corruption kills. On the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham published an extraordinary study in Nature. Using data from Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index, they calculated that 83 percent of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes in the past 30 years took place in countries that were “anomalously corrupt”—that is, in countries that were perceived to be more corrupt than you would predict from their per-capita income.

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A quarter of a million people were killed in Haiti, and God knows how many more were maimed, physically and emotionally, by collapsing buildings. This will happen again and again, in larger and larger numbers, with ever-weepier celebrity telethons to accompany the carnage. But you’ll see no calls to save the world from corrupt building practices on your grocery bags at Whole Foods. Nobody will suggest that the American government enter into seismic risk reduction treaties with other nations.

Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran. It will be one of them. It isn’t too late to save them. But we need to say the truth about why they’re at risk in the first place.


You know what to do next.


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