A magnitude-7.8 earthquake in the early morning hours of Feb. 6 near the provincial capital city of Gaziantep, Turkey, has leveled hundreds of buildings across the region, and is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in that country and Syria. Another destructive temblor nearby rated at magnitude-7.5 followed later in the day. Aftershocks have rattled the region.

As of Feb. 7 there are reports that over 7,200 people in Turkey and Syria are dead as a result of the quakes, and that figure is expected to continue to rise. Thousands of buildings were destroyed—from relatively recently built structures to a 2,000-year-old castle.

Early reports from Turkish authorities said more than 5,600 buildings were destroyed, including a state hospital in the city of Iskenderun, according to Reuters. The extent of damage to infrastructure is still unknown, but there were some unconfirmed reports of fires in southern Turkey, possibly due to ruptured natural gas pipelines.

While cities in western Turkey, such as Istanbul, have many buildings designed to modern seismic codes, the area of south-central Turkey near the epicenter has many older high-rise buildings not necessarily built to such stringent codes, U.S. Geological Survey structural engineer Kishor Jaiswal told the Associated Press.

Kit Miyamoto of Miyamoto International, a structural engineer and natural disaster response leader who has previous experience as a first-responder in Haiti and other quake zones, told ENR on Feb. 6 that he and a team from his firm are on their way to Turkey to offer assistance. 

Miyamoto said in a Feb, 7 press statement that "It's essential to move quickly and provide assistance to those in need. Our Turkish teams and other organizations deployed on the ground face an extreme emergency." The firm is coordinating its post-earthquake engineering response efforts with both United Nations and local government officials, he added.

President Joe Biden said in a Feb. 6 press statement that the U.S. is prepared to support search-and-rescue efforts and provide humanitarian assistance. U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power announced that it was sending a disaster assistance response team to Turkey to work alongside local officials on the response effort, as well as urban search and rescue teams from Los Angeles and Fairfax, Va. 

While reports are still coming of the seismic performance of buildings, engineers with recent projects are learning how their buildings fared. In the city of Adana in southern Turkey, the 5.9-million-sq-ft Adana Integrated Health Campus was completed in 2017 and features a seismic isolation system based on the triple-pendulum system developed by Earthquake Protection Systems (EPS), Vallejo, Calif. 

“This morning I got a call from our client in Turkey for whom we had done a 550,000-sq-meter hospital in Adana,” says Anoop S. Mokha, EPS vice president. “One of the magnitude-7-plus earthquakes in Turkey today had its epicenter [near] Adana. The hospital remained fully functional while many code-designed hospitals failed.”

Başar Arıoğlu, chairman of Turkish contractor Yapi Merkezi, says a pipe production plant in Urfa next to Gaziantep survived unscathed, but estimates that long-term construction will take at least two years.

After the 1999 İzmit earthquake, “the government really did get organized to rebuild the houses and infrastructure, but not very quickly," he says. "I think this time they will get organized very fast, but the problem is to find the funds to do this and also make the decisions regarding the priority of the investments.” 

Arıoğlu notes that the probability of two 7.5+ earthquakes happening within 100 km of each other and within 9 hours is “like lightning falling on the same tree twice in the same storm.”

Memories of Past Quakes

Turkey has suffered major earthquakes in the past. A temblor in northwestern Turkey in 1999 killed more than 17,000 people and caused significant damage in the nation’s largest city, Istanbul. The disaster prompted revisions to seismic building codes, as well as a wave of seismic retrofits.

At that time, Burcin Kaplanoglu was an engineering student in Istanbul, and he volunteered as a building inspector in the weeks and months that followed the quake. Now vice president of innovation at the Oracle Industry Lab, he recalls dealing with the mixed quality of buildings in Turkey at the time, which could be found in a wide range of ages and styles, with many not built to existing codes. 

“I spent almost three years going and inspecting buildings" after the 1999 quake, Kaplanoglu says. Even well-designed buildings can perform poorly in especially severe seismic events, he adds. “Earthquakes are unpredictable, and many factors can affect the outcomes."

While Turkey has relatively strong building codes today, there are many older buildings in need of seismic upgrades and retrofit efforts have been uneven, he notes. 

“There has been a massive effort in the past 20 years of retrofitting buildings, but you can’t retrofit everything," Kaplanoglu says. "When you have a lot of old and new buildings mixed together, how do you make sure they are all up to code?"

Nations such as Turkey are facing massive retrofit challenges. "It’s not a black-and-white issue,” he adds.

The text of this article was updated on Feb. 7 to reflect new information.