Richard Korman

Richard Korman

ENR editors are known for their prolific and sometimes challenging overseas travel, especially in reporting on disasters of all kinds. 

As Senior Editor Pam McFarland headed to the region in Turkey struck by earthquakes on Feb. 6, she continued a long-established tradition, with many prior examples by ENR staff. 

When the earthquakes hit southeastern Turkey, McFarland was already preparing for a visit to a huge new dam under construction in a rural part of the country. She then expanded her plans to include reporting on the quake damage and related seismic safety issues.

For a journalist whose career has revolved around U.S. legislation, regulation and environmental issues, the entire trip required resourcefulness and good instincts. From the trip, McFarland wrote the lead ENR news story, with photos and reporting from the heavily damaged city of Antakya, and an unforgettable video report that was made amid the city’s ruins.

As part of ENR’s obligation to help readers understand issues and events that affect the global natural and built environment, and construction industry, journalists enter disaster areas, usually with an industry expert to point out details and ensure safety. ENR goes with an eye toward the causes of destruction and failure as part of the long process through which engineers and construction professionals assimilate new knowledge to insure more resilient structures in the future.

But there is also an emotional dimension to this type of journalism. 

One colleague covering a conference when the 1989 Loma Prieta quake struck California recalls traveling with an engineering crew to the site of a collapsed Oakland freeway, knowing that dead motorists were in the wreckage, but not knowing until later that one truck driver was still alive and trapped and eventually rescued.

I remember being jolted driving around flooded sections of New Orleans two months after waters had receded when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Entire sections of the city were eerily deserted; debris still was sitting out on sidewalks. At a landfill where crews had collected row after row of flood-ruined refrigerators, some still had rotting food inside, with family snapshots and shopping lists attached to the doors.

So I was interested in McFarland’s experience. She had already made plans to visit the Yusufeli Dam on the Çoruh River in Artvin Province. But after the earthquake, she contacted earthquake consultant Miyamoto International, which is partnering with Turkish firm Protek-Yapi to provide engineering expertise.

The next days were filled with airports, airline flights and long drives. After a flight to Istanbul on March 24, McFarland made a separate air and driving trip to the dam with staff from Limak Construction. She stayed one night in Ankara, and after returning to Istanbul for a night, made the long drive with engineer Mustafa Kizil, a senior engineer at Miyamoto-Protek, and his assessment team partner, an architect named Yusuf, into the earthquake zone and to Antakya in Hatay Province.

Much of the drive passed through very scenic parts of coastal Turkey. But as they approached Antakya, McFarland said the reality of what had happened hit her. “We did pass many people’s destroyed homes and it looked like a war zone,” she recalled. “There was one woman standing in front of a collapsed building as if she were remembering someone who had died, and a family was trying to get into its apartment to get things out. I was glad I had not been there immediately after the earthquake, which I imagine would have been very hard to witness.”

What McFarland did see was bad enough. In her article and video, posted to April 11, she describes a devastated city: “Buildings stand askew at odd angles or are completely toppled, and the rubble from the homes of people who lived inside of them is neatly collected into piles and mounds,” she said. “These piles of trash, a strange amalgamation of concrete and wire, shards of glass and blankets, toys and other small remnants of lives interrupted, seem to outnumber intact structures here in Antakya.”

As McFarland videotaped, Kizil reviewed several structures and discussed what went wrong. At one pancaked building, the engineer’s final stray thought, “What can we say?” seems appropriate for now.

Until the full examination of the destruction of Antakya is completed, and all the causes are known, there are not enough words to sum up the suffering and loss that wrecked buildings and infrastructure never fully explain.