Very early on from my time here in Scotland, I was very happy to discover that against my superstition, awful weather has always been here and that a trampoline previously pegged to the ground can be flown a mile away from a garden regardless of my involvement and that folk don’t bat an eyelid over wind gales that would be considered hurricanes in other parts of the world.
I was born and raised in Mexico City, where we are no strangers to earthquakes and natural disasters. I lived through the tragedy of the deadliest earthquake in Mexican history in 1985. I then spent a year after high school in a college at the base of a volcano, which just happened to become active again while I was living there… Luckily other than the never-ending ash which took months to clear, all was ok for me after we were let out of our safe places. After that I went on to university in the South East of the United States to coincide with Hurricane Floyd; once more, I couldn’t have felt luckier when on the return from the shelter, the tree that would have crushed my car and part of my house laid blocking the road with nothing but surface water and other random debris under it. I moved to Los Angeles after that to pursue a career in film and animation at a time where unprecedented flash floods, wild fires and the effects of El Niño were devastating the whole state… it was heartbreaking to see such beauty destroyed and so many lives affected; whole fields of crops were destroyed, people’s livelihoods were continuously in the verge of ruin.
But tucked in a North Hollywood animation studio cubicle, and sheltered by the oblivion of youth, it seemed like just another hiccough in a timeline. That’s when my egocentric climate jinx seems to have ended and natural disasters seemed to sprout everywhere, not just in my vicinity. Of course they were always happening elsewhere and of course my wee brushes with nature’s fury were lucky in the extreme and fortunately never as devastating as for countless of other less self-absorbed people. I am very fortunate and I am relieved I don’t see the world through such a narrow lens anymore. I think of this often, though. Being there in those occasions, living throughout them all, and it is this relationship with intense powerlessness and collective trauma that brings the current tragedy in Turkey and Syria so close to my heart.
It is awful enough when nature kicks and folk happen to be in its path. It is utterly soul destroying when you know that the effects of this happening could be lessened greatly if we did things with love and care for each other instead of for our self-serving need for profit and greed. Syria has been battered so inhumanely by war struggles and international neglect that I will (just for the sake of this article) focus on Turkey for now. The tragedy of the earthquake seems just one more thing in the list of things that the Syrian people have had to endure.
My wee family and I were lucky to spend a week holidaying in Turkey last summer. I could not help but absorb the similarities between our beautiful host and my own homeland. Both have cultural and historic roots that run thousands of years deep. Once proud, wealthy and relevant they both have sunk into disrepute and poverty in the last few centuries, their former glory forgotten. This is relevant to my point because when you are treated as a third-class citizen, your priorities certainly shift accordingly and the result is a divided country in which people are either struggling to survive, or stomping on others out of greed. Corruption can only become endemic within a culture when people stop caring for others; when their selfishness becomes so great that they blank out the suffering their lifestyles bring to those around them. It was this selfishness and this ingrained multi-level corruption that lead to the extreme casualty toll 10 days ago in the Kahramanmaras, not the earthquake itself.
Don’t take me wrong, this was a horrific natural disaster and as such it was always going to claim its price, but at 7.8 in the magnitude scales it left me wondering why it was so deadly, compared to what I had lived through in my youth with the 8.2 magnitude Mexico City earthquake of 1985. After a fair bit of digging, I concluded my answer had four aspects.
One is that the Richter magnitude scale by which we measure earthquakes is not all there is to an earthquake’s deadliness; there is a second scale, the Mercalli scale, which measures intensity, and in this occasion, it was off the charts (XI- Extreme). The earthquake that left my birthplace as a bomb site in ‘85 only reached level IX- Violent even though its magnitude was greater. It is the Mercalli scale that better measures the level of destruction to buildings and man-made structures an earthquake will have, as it measures the effects of an earthquake in the place it is analysing, rather than the inherent force of strength the same earthquake brings with it from its origin.
Additionally to all this, we have to consider the aftershock factor. It is indeed common that a big earthquake will always come with a tail of one or more tremors, some as the one in Mexico I have been citing throughout, can bring a second major magnitude shake (7.8 in that occasion) in less than 24 hours from the main event. In Turkey’s case they have suffered more than a thousand aftershocks after the main one, with 135 of them above 4.0 magnitude and another massive 7.5 one a mere 9 hours after the main one. The level of destruction produced by this series of events was never going to be subtle.
A second and major factor to the deadliness of this disaster is still in play now. It is February and that mountainous region is not a stranger to harsh winters. Search and rescue operations and their efficiency can be greatly affected by this, and the survival of those trapped for days under the rubble and even those who have been pulled out of it now can be cut short by hypothermia. My heart goes to them and their surviving relatives and my hopes are that the international mobilisation of aid both at grassroots and institutional level can make a difference here.
The third aspect I found relevant is that tragically for the people of Turkey, the disaster struck early in the morning, while most were still in their beds, trapping them unprepared and helpless. By comparison, the one I lived through was also early in the morning, but at a time when most working people and school-aged children would have been getting ready or on their way to school or work places. For us the timing was a blessing, since many survivors would have been crushed en mass in the many substandard school and public buildings that collapsed during the disaster. The death toll in Mexico in that occasion was the most tragic the country has ever experienced with a calculated claim of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 lives. This ambiguous figure makes my blood boil, since there is a horror story of political corruption that accompanies it, but that shall be left for a different occasion.
For the people of the Kahramanmaras region, the tragic loss of (so far) 42,000 lives was not helped by this timing, but what has now emerged to have been a great factor, in combination with the two previously described aspects, was human greed and corruption. Building permits were given which would have never passed any relaxed health and safety standards. Bribes, lies and lack of quality control allowed for the displacement of thousands of poor people to make way for luxury newbuilds. The displaced ended up in cramped substandard housing in insufficient urban environments, but neither escaped the tragic fate that the earthquake brought, since even these ‘luxury’ new homes were built under such lack of standards and through such a chain of bribes and dishonesty that they collapsed to a flat mess as well.
But this shocking news is not the only reason why this last aspect sticks into my soul so painfully. I recognised the institutional and corporate corruption. I grew up with it as ‘normal’. They knew the risks. This tragedy was foretold by thousands of years of historical earthquakes and a geography primed for it. Just as in Mexico, Turkey’s territory is veined with tectonic fault lines, which increase the occurrence and severity of seismic activity. Turkey has suffered from more than 100 major earthquakes since 1950, none of them above this last one in either magnitude nor loss of lives, but shockingly when looking back through the data, around 38,000 people have died in Turkey because of earthquake disasters in this period in history alone before considering the recent tragedy. Just three years ago the Izimir earthquake claimed the lives of 117 people and left hundreds more destitute. How is it that a further 42,000 more people have had to die? Why?
After the tragedy in my city in 1985, we would have weekly earthquake drills at school and perhaps not as often, but definitely regularly in every work place by law. This has remained as a standard of life in the city (if maybe a bit less often) to the date. There are seismic alarms all over the greater metropolitan area and all mediums of mass communication are fitted and prepared with broadcasting capacity to alert their audiences throughout the country. Buildings (regardless of the continued corruption and greed) need to pass strict regulations and standards which have secured the safety of 200m tall skyscrapers and local archeological sites dotted throughout the city during the many high magnitude earthquakes this city has experienced since.
Just last year (and most traumatically since it is the third time that a major earthquake hits the city in the anniversary of the ‘85 disaster) my home town got hit again in the early hours of the morning. This time, however, only two people died. It was far milder at 6.8, but for those who lived the four minutes of horror while everything crashed and collapsed to the ground around them almost 40 years ago, this was not to be taken lightly. Even from Scotland I became part of a collective network that worked relentlessly to connect people and provide updates to people waiting for supplies and news (internet and phone lines were down for a few days) and everyone I knew back home became part of rescue and shelter operations.
That is what major trauma does to a country, and that is what a country does for its people while the institutions of power work tirelessly to maximise rescue and reconstruction, but also to prevent unnecessary mass loss of lives. Mexico is far from freeing itself from the clutches of corruption and greed mentality that have sunken it down to an unrecognisable society to the one I grew up in, but there is that solid understanding that we (even the greediest of us) will never allow for a tragedy like the one in ‘85 to happen to our people ever again. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed in his press conference that it would have been “impossible to prepare for the scale of the disaster”… I strongly disagree. I very angrily disagree.
We might not be in the path of nature’s wrath up here in bonnie Scotland, even as we prepare for another go at bracing 75mph gale winds this evening, but as many of us have noted, flash floods, storms unprecedented droughts and anomalies in what used to be predictable climate patterns are becoming increasingly more notable and if we are to trust climate scientists, this is just the beginning of some pretty scary forecasts. I can’t avoid, having lived through a few scary events myself, thinking we might want to start listening, planning and coming together to prevent corruption and its consequences before we are left with no option but to rescue folk by the thousands from preventable disaster zones.