5.8-magnitude earthquake in Istanbul prompts fears of “Big One”

A 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey’s most populous city Istanbul on Thursday, causing more panic than damage, and prompted fears amongst residents of the megacity that the inevitable big earthquake “Big One” that experts predict could be approaching.

Eight people were slightly wounded and only minor damages have been officially reported while about 30 aftershocks prevented many people from returning to their homes, local press reported.

Significant outages affected mobile and fixed telephone lines, adding to the anxiety of citizens who used the Internet, where available, to reach family and friends waiting to hear from their loved ones.

“It’s been more than an hour since the quake struck and telephone lines are still down, perhaps they are saturated. But this is a grim reminder that if an even powerful earthquake happens, we’ll be cut from the rest of the world,” said Murat Akinci, an Istanbul resident, to Xinhua.

The earthquake struck in the Sea of Marmara and was felt throughout the western Marmara region where Istanbul, the country’s largest city with more than 15 million people, is located.

The quake was preceded on Wednesday by a 4.6-magnitude earthquake which also caused wide anxiety in the city, fearing a bigger earthquake that seismology experts have warned about for years.

TV channels showed footage of CCTV across the city of people rushing from their houses or shops in sheer panic and running in the streets during Thursday’s tremors, and experts have commented that this displays the sad fact that most of the citizens are ill-prepared against an even powerful earthquake.

Parents rushed to schools in panic to check their children while schools and hospitals in the city were evacuated for preventive measures. People can also be heard reciting loudly prayers in a public building during the severe tremors in footage posted on social media.

Public institutions and security forces have been immediately put on high alert and the authorities warned against entering damaged buildings in the giant city which straddles Europe and Asia.

“We saw panic-stricken residents and even school children rushing to the sheets, yet this is not the way to act during an earthquake. We said and are still saying that Istanbul is located near an active fault line and a bigger one, expecting to be higher than 7 magnitude, can happen anytime,” said Suleyman Pampal, a seismologist from the Ankara-based Gazi University.

“More than talking about when an earthquake will take place we should focus on minimizing risks in case of an earthquake,” told the scholar to CNN-Turk news channel.

Bulent Ozmen, a seismology engineering expert at the same university, said that the earthquake was part of a shift in one of the most active parts of the North Anatolian fault line, one of the most active fault lines in Turkey and the world.

“We know the last big earthquake here was about 250 years ago. Scientists already say there is a high possibility of an earthquake up to 7.5 magnitude in this segment,” he added.

For Istanbul, the question is not if but when a devastating earthquake will hit the metropolis, according to experts who generally think that while serious measures have been taken by authorities in the last two decades, there is still a lot to be done to prevent death and demolition.

In 1999, an earthquake of around 7.4 magnitude rattled the industrialized Marmara region east of Istanbul killing more than 17,000 people and injuring 50,000 others, displacing 300,000 people.

The tragedy highlighted the loose construction standards across Turkey and the ill-preparedness of emerging services.

Since then, regulations have become significantly stricter and an emergency body, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), has been established to coordinate aid efforts.

According to AFAD estimates, a big earthquake in Istanbul could kill around 30,000 people and destroy 45,000 buildings, leaving 2.5 million people homeless.

The construction craze that fueled growth in Turkey in the last decade, has had a negative impact on post-seismic emergency efforts as earthquake assembly zones have been replaced by concrete buildings or shopping malls, cautioned recently the Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects.

An ambitious urban renewal scheme is currently underway in Istanbul in order to demolish and reconstruct buildings deemed to be at risk, but according to estimates a majority of building in the metropolis are at risk.