Turks ask how a boom town came crashing down in quake
By Can Sezer and Jonathan Spicer
NURDAGI, Turkey (Reuters) - Almost every apartment tower in Nurdagi collapsed or was shattered beyond repair in last month's earthquake in Turkey - and people are now asking if a building boom in the town in recent decades may have to led to the deaths of thousands of residents.
The town's population swelled in recent years to some 25,000, residents say, driven in part by increasingly flexible regulations that allowed apartment blocks to reach as high as eight stories, from a limit of three previously.
"We shouldn't have had more than two to three floors here. This 20-year-long rapid construction came crashing down in just two minutes," said Hasan Bal, 52, a retired teacher who lost 10 immediate relatives in the magnitude 7.8 quake.
"We expected an earthquake but not such a thing as that...the ground rose 1-1.5 meters like a wave," said Bal, the local representative for the opposition DEVA party.
"Even if some of the standards required in the earthquake belt are met, buildings had no chance to withstand it."
The mayor, who hails from President Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party, has been arrested over allegations that past construction work may have been substandard.
The initial quake on Feb. 6 tremor sliced directly through Nurdagi, leaving it among the worst hit communities in Turkey's deadliest modern disaster.
The quake and aftershocks also flattened much larger centers including Antakya city to the south.
Residents say cheap credit had helped the town expand, reflecting a nationwide building boom that has defined Erdogan's two decades in power.
But Nurdagi sits atop a known faultline, mostly on flat valley terrain offering little protection from seismic waves.
Since 2004, the municipality allowed apartments to reach first five stories then eight, three residents said. By this year, the town had 11,000 total buildings, the urbanisation ministry said.
State-owned news agency Anadolu said Mayor Okkes Kavak was arrested and replaced two weeks ago over construction practices and a local developer was also arrested.
The municipality did not respond to a query about how buildings were allowed to grow over the years.
SURVIVAL AND LOSS
A month after the quakes, the many dozens of apartment towers that are not already heaps of twisted steel and concrete are being torn down. An estimated 4,000 people died in Nurdagi, and the survivors who remained live mostly in tents.
For five days after the tremor, Havva Aslan and her husband and three children survived under the concrete rubble of a five-storey building where they had lived on the first floor.
"We've lost everything else but not each other," she told Reuters of the morning that their apartment floor gave way, leaving them trapped together in the darkness.
Aslan said her family is thankful for a furnished container home where they live for now on the outskirts of town.
"We may perhaps build our two-storey home back at the village once all this is over," she said.
Urbanisation Minister Murat Kurum said some parts of Nurdagi will be relocated to higher, sturdier ground. Erdogan, facing an election in May, has promised to rebuild the entire disaster zone within a year.
But many local people want a more wholesale reconsideration of plans.
"The correct policy is that no building should exceed two storeys," said Fatih Cihan, 42, a farmer in Nurdagi and former assistant professor of finance and statistics at the University of Connecticut.
Having driven his family to Istanbul immediately after the quake, he returned and now lives in a tent. He said he lost machinery and the irrigation system for his 100-acre farm in the fallout.
"The first two weeks I just stared at my land," Cihan said. "I saw my life collapse before my eyes."
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)