Earthquake in Turkey: Stubborn mayor turns out to be a savior

Whole cities collapse in the earthquakes in the Turkish-Syrian border area, burying thousands of people.

Earthquake in Turkey: Stubborn mayor turns out to be a savior

Whole cities collapse in the earthquakes in the Turkish-Syrian border area, burying thousands of people. Only one city miraculously remains almost unharmed: Erzin. The mayor of the city, whom the residents are now celebrating, is probably responsible for this.

Good news is scarce in the earthquake-hit areas of Turkey and Syria. The thousands of deaths and the devastating destruction are present everywhere. It is all the more astonishing that a town in the earthquake area remained almost unharmed and has no victims to mourn.

The city is Erzin, a city of 42,000 in southern Turkey between Osmaniye and Iskenderun. Although Erzin is in the middle of the earthquake area, all the houses are still there. In the face of the images from Kahramanmaras and Antakya, the city's residents speak of a miracle.

The people of Erzin probably owe this miracle to their mayor Ökkeş Elmasoglu and probably to his predecessors. Elmasoglu has been in charge of the city since 2019. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he names what he considers the most important reason for the small amount of damage. "I have not approved a single black building." Therefore, although there was damage to buildings, not a single house collapsed and nobody died in the rubble.

According to Elmasoglu, most of the houses in Erzin are single-family homes. Multi-family houses and apartment blocks have only been built in the last ten years. A few black structures had been erected before his tenure, but they too had withstood the tremors. The mayor attributes this to the fact that people know each other and look when something is being built. After being elected as a candidate for the opposition party CHP, he put a complete stop to illegal construction. Some buildings erected without permission also had to be demolished.

"The contractors or the people who build in other cities keep asking the mayors not to approve things that are not planned. We don't do that. We don't expect 'political gifts' and we don't accept them," Elmasoglu told SZ. He also explained his point of view on Turkish television and the BBC. Many were therefore angry with him, "but now my conscience is clear".

Erzin probably also benefited from the fact that it is 110 kilometers away from the epicenter of the most severe earthquakes. However, a similar distance did not protect other places. Erzin may have been far enough away from the fault lines that propagate tremors in the Earth's mantle. Many locals also believe that the mountains and hills surrounding Erzin protected the city. In the meantime, many people who lost their apartments and houses elsewhere have found shelter in the city.

More than 35,000 deaths have been counted in Turkey and neighboring Syria so far. Experts say that many people died simply because the regulations for earthquake-proof construction were disregarded. Departments to investigate earthquake-related crimes have been set up in ten provinces affected by the earthquake, on orders from the Ministry of Justice. This also includes investigations into people responsible for the collapse of buildings. In the meantime, arrests have been made.

(This article was first published on Wednesday, February 15, 2023.)