The Great Trembling

Naples, Istanbul, Lisbon: three metropolises that are more fragile than their inhabitants would like to admit. In parts of southern Europe, massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are imminent. Millions of human lives are at risk, however the experts warnings are being ignored.


The Archbishop of Naples stands in front of an impatient crowd and turns a glass ampoule in his hands. The holy blood must become liquid or the inferno will begin.

 

On the beach of Lisbon a man builds figures out of sand. When a wave comes, they will dissolve into individual grains. When the big wave comes, the city will follow suit.

 

Near Istanbul, the rescue teams are rehearsing the emergency on a model of a house that has collapsed. “It's like back then,” one whispers. “The only thing missing is the sweet smell of decay.”

 

The three European metropolises of Naples, Lisbon and Istanbul are united by the same fate: they will bury thousands of their inhabitants and plunge the survivors into horror. The day of destruction will come for each of these cities, but no one can say when. Because while humanity is preparing for an expedition to Mars, we have not yet made it deeper than twelve kilometers below the earth's surface. And so scientists can only predict that strong earthquakes and volcanic eruptions will devastate the three cities. Perhaps the current inhabitants will then have been dead for a long time. Maybe it will hit them tomorrow.

 

The reason why the earth is not as immovable as we would like it to be has been speculated about for thousands of years. Immanuel Kant, like some Roman scholars before him, imagined a worldwide underground cave system in which gases abruptly displace each other. Others suspected underground electrical discharges or a brief change in the direction of gravity. It was only half a century ago that the research community agreed on the theory that the entire earth’s surface rests on huge continental plates twenty to 250 kilometers thick, floating on a viscous layer. And these plates move incessantly.

 

The surface on which we stand is therefore constantly trembling, ever so gently that we don't notice it. Only when the plates wedge into each other, it becomes dangerous. In order to understand what happens then, we can simply snap our fingers: between thumb and middle finger pressure develops, the friction increases more and more, until the middle finger gives way jerkily and slips away - "snap". The plates deep in the earth behave similarly. Only that this "snap" has the power to take everything with it: Houses, offices, schools, factories, power stations, bridges, hospitals, everything.

 

Even far away from the plate boundaries, old cracks can shake the earth. The Rheingraben in Germany is one of these faults. It shakes constantly and trembles stronger every ten years. The Vogelsberg in Hesse and the Vulkaneifel in Rheinland-Pfalz are old volcanoes that can become active again. They are all weak points of the continental plate. The greatest danger, however, threatens the southern edge, where the Eurasian plate meets the African plate and the Anatolian plate pushes in from the east. People have built large metropolises in this vicinity. Naples, Lisbon and Istanbul must be prepared for the big "snap". How do their inhabitants live with this invisible threat, how do societies prepare themselves for the inevitable disasters?

 

NAPLES: Playing with fire

 

Three times a year, the Neapolitans stare at an ampoule full of coagulated blood and pray. In the Cathedral on Via Duomo in the old parts of town, the Archbishop then turns the otherwise sealed bottle in his hands, and they murmur and fear and crowd. The now dried up blood is said to have once pulsated in the veins of the patron saint San Gennaro. The Neapolitans believe that if it flows on three holy days a year, San Gennaro will protect his city. If it does not, it must fear a catastrophe. It's a ritual, a superstition, perhaps a simple magic trick, but after the blood miracle failed in 1980, an earthquake devastated the region.

 

The probability of disasters in Naples is high. Goethe once described one of the culprits as a "summit of hell piled up in paradise": Mount Vesuvius. Berardino Bocchino now jumps down into its gorge in large strides. He is not disturbed by the clinking pumice avalanches that he has broken loose in the process, he rather rides down on them. He is the volcano's closest confidante.

 

Vesuvius exists because under it the African plate slides under the Eurasian plate, this is called subduction. Because of the strong pressure and high temperature, the submerging plate melts deep under the earth and then penetrates through the volcano's throat, eventually rising to the surface as magma. Unlike Stromboli off of Sicily, which erupts lightly almost every ten minutes and sometimes - as in early July - more strongly, Vesuvius remains silent most of the time. At the edge of the crater the ground breaks off into the depths in dark prongs, sulphurous water vapour smokes from rock cracks, and the wind pulls at the porous lava stones as if to carry them away. But there is no draft inside the crater, only the sun. Inside it is peaceful.

 

The call of a falcon chick echoes in the cauldron. Sometimes Bocchino meets the rabbits, hares, lizards and snakes that live here. The crater is fully closed at all times, the magma boils deeply hidden under the surface. Trees thrive on it, at its lowest point a willow stretches its white catkins into the sun. From here, 220 meters separate Bocchino to the edge of the cone, the last ten of which he will only be able to overcome with the help of a rope and climbing equipment on his way back. He is 56 years old and has been coming here every two weeks for half of his life. For the Observatorio Vesuviano, which belongs to the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, he extracts gas samples into glass flasks and keeps the measuring instruments intact, which send data to the observatory every two hours to keep surveillance on the volcano. 

 

Here, it is clear to everyone that peace is not permanent; one day hot steam and magma will shoot up from a depth of ten kilometers and take everything with it into the sky - the crater floor, the measuring instruments, the willow, the rabbits, hares, lizards, snakes and the falcon chicks. The hope is that the summit of hell will tell us with enough warning, because not only is Berardino Bocchino better off far away, but also the millions of people who live at the feet of the volcano. How many of them will have to flee from an eruption and whether they will have enough time to do so is a matter that science, civil protectionists and politicians have been arguing about for years.

 

"If the volcano erupted tomorrow, there would be no strategy to save the people", says Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a tanned man with deep lying eyes. Mastrolorenzo is a volcanologist at the observatory, he and Bocchino have known each other for thirty years, and they have descended into the crater of Vesuvius together several times. With his harsh statements, Mastrolorenzo is an outsider, most of his colleagues keep a low profile. Seismologists and geologists around the world have been choosing their words more cautiously since seven years ago. At that time, seven Italian researchers were sentenced to prison by the court of the city of L'Aquila on the grounds that they had not clearly warned about the earthquake that had killed more than 300 people in L'Aquila in 2009. On appeal the researchers were acquitted, however the uncertainty remains.

 

With probabilities it is difficult to warn of danger. For decades, seismologists had hoped to find all the common precursor phenomena for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would make meaningful predictions possible. They haven’t found it. Their only point of reference is statistics, which is extremely error-prone when calculating long term intervals. If the researchers warn prematurely, they trigger chaos and expensive evacuations. If they warn late, they risk many fatalities. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo does not know the date of the next big Vesuvius eruption either, but he knows it will come. "What happened in the past will happen in the future," he says.

 

About 4000 years ago, a thundering sonic boom shakes the Gulf of Naples. Ashes, lava solidify into stones and larger lava bombs are hurled into the stratosphere in a 36 Kilometer high column and hail for hours onto the countryside. The column collapses at least six times and races down the slopes of the volcano as a pyroclastic current at 540 kilometers per hour towards the northwest, to the current center of Naples. Within a radius of twelve kilometers, the almost 500-degree avalanche destroys and kills everything. Heavy rainfall caused by the eruption mixes with ashes and stones to form a mudslide that buries villages and corpses beneath it. For 230 years, the meter-high ash layer makes human life in the region impossible.

 

1900 years later Vesuvius erupts again and destroys Pompeii. Hundreds of people seek shelter in the boathouses in Herculaneum,  in 2001 scientists demonstrate on their skeletons that the pyroclastic current killed them within a fraction of a second. Their clothes burned, their flesh vaporized, their brains burst out of their skulls. It is this eruption that sets the bar for a particularly strong eruption, called the "Plinian eruption" after its chronicler Pliny the Younger. And it is also this eruption that causes the present volcanic cone to grow out of the old crater. The old crater rim now frames Vesuvius at some distance in a semicircle and will direct future pyroclastic flows towards Naples.

 

Today, more than three million people live around the volcano - not despite, but because of it. Its soil is particularly fertile, they use it to grow wine and Pomodorino del Piennolo tomatoes, which can be kept for months. Like moths, people dance around the volcano’s light. Naples is a synonym for chaos, life is loud, impulsive and restless, just like the volcano itself. For many inhabitants it is a ritual to greet it every morning through the window, ironically some even say they feel protected from the fire it will spit on them. The volcano is a powerful friend to them, giving them peace most of the time and only raging destructively from time to time. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, killing 26 people.

 

For Angelo Pesce that was no reason to leave. Between volcano and sea, the 88-year-old lives in a stately house with a garden and a pool. He remembers it well, the clouds above the crater reflecting the red glow of the lava, the sound of the stones crashing on the ground and bursting into a thousand pieces, the soldiers taking up arms mistaking the stone rain drops for bombs, the hunger in the months that followed. Only the danger, he says, he forgot again quickly.

 

At the beginning of the millennium, the government of the Campania region, where Naples is located, offered the inhabitants of the danger zone 30,000 Euros each to move away from the volcano. With moderate success - today, when questioned, the regional government does not want to comment on the measure, nor does it want records of it to be found in its archives.

 

Until 1995, there had not even been an emergency plan, only in 2001 did the civil protection draw a red zone around Vesuvius and extended it in 2014. Here, there is an official danger of death in the event of an outbreak. It comprises of 25 municipalities with around 700,000 inhabitants. If an outbreak is announced, the civil defence wants total evacuation, using buses, within 72 hours. A larger yellow zone, which would be exposed to ashes and stone rain, may have to be cleared spontaneously too. The civil protectors themselves proved 13 years ago that the plan, which to this day is still incomplete, will not work when they rehearsed the emergency and wanted to rescue 1,800 people from the red zone. The previous night, heavy rain had flooded several roads, creating real disaster conditions. Chaos broke out and the evacuation failed.

 

But that is by no means the only problem with this plan. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo's main criticism is based on the basic assumptions of size and time: "The civil defence plan assumes only a subplinian, meaning a relatively small eruption. "There is no scientific reason for this", says the volcanologist. “Isn’t that absurd? Since Plinian eruptions are named after Vesuvius, you have to expect them." That would mean to include the densely populated Neapolitan district of more than a million people in the evacuation plan. And then the time: "Volcanoes can erupt at any time", Mastrolorenzo explains - that they have 72 hours left for the evacuation is a hope, not a certainty.

 

And all of this is still not Naples’ biggest concern. For this one ought to understand where the building is located, in which Mastrolorenzo shares a small office with his white shepherd dog named Zeus. From Vesuvius in the east you have to cross to the other side, through this terribly beautiful city, where battered cars squeeze through its congested roads, where Madonna and Maradona are equally worshipped on house walls, where Camorra's power struggles are fought within its neighborhoods and where so many historic buildings are located, so that the present is threatened to be suffocated by the past. There, in the west of the city, boils a much greater danger underground: the Phlegraean (ancient Greek: burning) fields, a mighty supervolcano. And the observatory is located in the middle of its huge crater. When Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo opens his window, he can smell the sulphur, "the breath of the volcano", as he says. And when something breathes, then the chest rises and lowers, in this case the earth: The worldwide unique phenomenon of Bradyseismos was the cause of the ground rising so much in the seventies and eighties that several communities had to be resettled. They now live in the hastily built prefabricated district of Monterusciello, still inside the crater. 

 

"The danger is the same," says Giuseppe Di Roberto, who is having an Espresso at the bar of a café in one of the prefabricated buildings. He was twelve years old when he was relocated together with his family. His tired eyes are framed by a pair of rimless glasses, they do not show any emotion when he continues: "The danger is part of our identity." 

 

The inferno is part of their past and it will also be part of their future. 15,000, 29,000 and 39,000 years ago, the Phlegraean Fields erupted ten to eighty times stronger than Vesuvius could ever be capable of. The eruptions buried the whole region under itself, all of Naples is built on and partly from volcanic stone. The ash particles in the atmosphere caused a volcanic winter in large parts of the earth for years, which could have led to the erosion of the Neanderthals. If the Phlegraean Fields were to erupt at such a scale again, around three million people in the Gulf of Naples would be in immediate fatal danger. Nevertheless, the civil defence is planning for a rather small eruption despite its supervolcano status and would only evacuate 450,000 people in the case of an emergency. This could be justified by the fact that the gigantic eruptions date back a long time ago. But the more time that passes, the more likely a major event will take place. And the supervolcano is up and running again, in 2012 the civil protection declared the second of four alarm stages: There is increased attention.

 

Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo accuses the authorities of a typical Neapolitan approach to the risk: Facite ammuina, to create confusion. The phrase goes back to an alleged ship command in the 19th century, according to which all sailors were to change position when superiors came on board to pretend to be busy without anything actually happening. And it is perhaps also typically Neapolitan that this story was invented.

 

"Campania is the best," says Claudia Campobasso unaffected by such criticism - the best in civil defence, she says. She has been the director of the regional Protezione Civile for several months, wearing a palm-sized cloth flower on her lapel. She proudly walks through the Operation Room and to the Emergency Desk,  surveillance screens are hastily turned on by the workers and espressos in plastic cups are being distributed. She can see Vesuvius from her office on the 16th floor of the Naples Business Centre. "Beautiful, isn't it?”

 

She explains calmly that in case of an evacuation everyone can escape with their own car, the roads would be free, they would make sure of that. “The volcano will announce the eruption beforehand”, she continues, "that is scientifically proven.” Experts like Mastrolorenzo think traffic chaos is more likely, which would force people to flee on foot. At the mention of his name, Campobasso's smile dies. It is best to talk to his institute director, not to him, "scientists have their own opinions". Ten minutes later she declares the interview finished, assures to answer written questions, but never will.

 

Opposite to the exit hangs the image of an erupting volcano, the lava bursting out of the crater in red and yellow wool threads. The light barrier of the automatic sliding door is broken. When leaving the headquarters of the civil defence in the shadow of the volcano, one must push a scrap of paper between the doors, so that they open.

 

LISBON: Limits of Enlightenment

 

Natural disasters destroy not only parts of our world, but also worldviews. In no other European city is this certainty as present as in Lisbon. Its trauma is Europe's trauma. The difficulty is to keep the memory alive and draw the right conclusions.

 

Europe's history divides into a before and an after. Before, Portugal was a world power with far-reaching colonies. Lisbon, then, one of the largest cities in Europe, was its shining jewel, its harbor on the Tejo River was the gateway to the world. Afterwards, nothing was the same as before. In-between, the earth trembled.

 

November 1st, 1755: It’s All Saints' Day and Lisbon is a religious city. Around ten o'clock in the morning, its inhabitants lit candles for the dead and crowded into the churches as the earth quakes and howls for several minutes. The vibration is so great that most places of worship collapse and crumble on those who pray. If not at the first shock, then at one of the following two. The smoke of the fires ignited by the falling candles and the dust of the collapsing houses darken the sun. Blind, anxious and confused, many flee to Terreiro do Paço, the large square next to the palace on the banks of the Tejo. But there they find no security: Around forty minutes after the first quake, a 15-meter-high tsunami races up the river and flushes those looking for shelter back into the destroyed city along with boats and rubble. The fires rage for a week. Some described it as the perfect nightmare.

 

The catholic church saw the catastrophe as a sign of God's wrath on the sinful city, which was too tolerant with unbelievers and Protestants. The protestant church, on the other hand, accused the inquisition and the catholic church of having drawn the wrath of God upon them and of being responsible for the misfortune. Even today, after an earthquake, people are increasingly turning to religion in order to explain and process the unpredictable catastrophe with the help of faith, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen proved empirically in 2018.

 

And yet, this earthquake shall be the impetus for an alternative explanation: the power of nature. The Lisbon quake was the first ever to be described as a natural disaster and is seen as a catalyst for enlightenment. At that time not only 60,000 to 100,000 people died, also, through the writings of philosophers, God died too. As a result of the disaster, thinkers all over Europe brought down the religious world view. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's optimistic assertion that God created the best of all possible worlds outraged Voltaire: "A father who kills his children is a monster (...) If one imagines God as kind and just as a father and a king should be, there is no longer any possibility to justify him”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau felt provoked to reply: "That optimism, which you find so cruel, comforts me precisely in the pain, which you describe as unbearable". God would not be responsible for the suffering, but man himself: "If we stick to the story of Lisbon, you should admit, for example, that nature did not build 20,000 houses of six to seven floors each there, and that if the inhabitants of this great city had distributed the damage more evenly and lived in lighter buildings, the destruction would have been much smaller or perhaps none at all.” Immanuel Kant also thought in a similar fashion: "It was necessary that earthquakes should sometimes occur on the ground; but it was not necessary that we should build magnificent dwellings above them," he wrote. “Man must learn to acquiesce to nature, but he wants it to acquiesce to him.” In several writings Kant tried to fathom the cause of the earthquake, but reached its limits. “Only, we still have a world under our feet with which we are very little familiar with at present," he stated with frustration in 1756.

 

Although mankind has learned a lot in the past 250 years, we still know very little about the world under our feet. In the deep sea, it is harder for us to install seismometers than on Mars: The NASA probe Insight dropped out such a device on the Red Planet in December 2018, but there is still no monitoring system off the coast of Portugal that could be used for early warning. The biggest problem under water is the power supply. Scientists around the world are researching the use of fiber optic cables as seismometers, for example like off the coast of Japan. This would also work for Portugal, but, on the one hand, implementation is expensive and Portugal is a country that was hit hard by the economic crisis, and, on the other hand, we need to know where the great quake came from in order to be able to record future earthquakes.

 

"We still don't know for sure the origin of the 1755 quake", admits João Duarte. But the geologist has now, after 264 years, made a breakthrough in this search - probably. Certainty is rare in geosciences, since most of the research area is deep underground and therefore beyond human reach. The 37-year-old works in a small room of the Faculty of Geosciences at the University of Lisbon, six kilometers north of the city center. Cardboard boxes full of books sit on the floor, in between a wooden box with rock samples. In the midst of this chaos, he not only succeeded in locating the quake of 1755, he also discovered a geological sensation.

 

The earthquake could still be felt in Germany and on Cape Verde, the tsunami caused by the shocks destroyed houses on the south coast of Great Britain and reached as far as the east coast of South America. The magnitude of the earthquake is estimated at 8.5 to 9 on the moment magnitude scale - while the Richter scale indicates the energy released, this is calculated from the length of the fracture. Scientists now prefer it because it can show strong quakes more precisely. The strength was actually typical for subduction zones - fractions where one plate dips under the other - but there was no such zone off Portugal. So geologists surveyed the seabed and discovered the Gorringe Bank, a submarine mountain range larger than the Alps, and several faults. João Duarte prepared an updated map of the region as part of his doctoral thesis. For years the researchers suspected the origin of the mega-quake somewhere around there.

 

But when it shook again in 1969 - so strong that the springs of many seismometers jumped out and the remaining ones recorded a magnitude of 7.9, so strong that many inhabitants of Lisbon spent weeks camping in the parks out of fear - the quake came from an unexpected place. It did not originate from the faults, but from a shallow deep-sea plain. Where they had located this earthquake, Duarte and an international team of researchers installed seismometers and discovered a possible earthquake site at a depth of forty to sixty kilometers, "this big thing," as Duarte calls it. His conclusion is that a new subduction zone is forming there. In April 2019, he presented his theory at Europe's largest geoscience conference in Vienna, where experts were enthusiastic and the discovery was reported in the media all over the world.

 

If Duarte is right, then the Eurasian continents valley plate is breaking into two right now. The Atlantic has been spreading further so far, the newly discovered subduction zone could mean that from now on it will begin to shrink until the American and Eurasian continents meet. In the distant future, the Earth could look like Pangea again, the last supercontinent.

 

The discovery is causing a stir among scientists around the world. The only problem is that it doesn't disturb anyone else. The common person simply doesn't understand it. What good are great insights for mankind if they never leave the circle of experts? When research results are marvelled at at conferences and then grow dusty between heavy book covers in geophysical institutes?

 

The people of Lisbon would do well to understand Duartes' research - and science to make it understandable to as many people as possible. Because the young geologist's discovery is not only an explanation for the enormous earthquake 264 years ago, it is also a prophecy for the future: "There will be a great earthquake like this one again, and it will kill many people, that's the only thing we can be sure of," Duarte says. When asked how the city is preparing for this, Lisbon's civil protection commissioner would not comment.

 

 

On the beach at the end of the Terreiro do Paço, a man builds figures out of sand. He shovels, shapes and waters them for hours. He makes his living from tourists taking pictures of his sculptures and paying for it. The sand artist builds mammoths, about three-meter long images of the dead species. With the next big wave, they will dissolve into billions of grains and show the city of Lisbon what lies ahead of it when the tsunami comes. 

 

Not far, the equestrian statue of King Joseph I is located, who, after the earthquake of 1755, afraid of a repeating quake, spent the rest of his life in a wooden palace outside the city. While he ducked away, the capital was rebuilt - in the same dangerous place.

 

ISTANBUL: Shortsightedness of Power

 

The ear of the researchers lies on a small island off the coast, hidden in a mountain covered with pine trees. Seismometers record the breathing of the earth's crust at a depth of 300 meters. Because there, at the bottom of the Sea of Marmara, lies the danger that threatens to destroy Istanbul. Three kilometers south of the measuring station runs the North Anatolian fault, which has the potential to obliterate the metropolis into dust and rubble. Here, too, the question is not if, but rather, when.

 

Three abandoned horses graze in the shade of the trees. Between the branches, a view of the eternal city on the Bosporus opens up. For more than 10,000 years, people have settled on the rift between the continents; since the fourth century, a cosmopolitan city has grown here that still shapes Europe today. In an ode to the magic of his homeland, the poet Orhan Veli Kanık wrote in 1949: "I am listening to  Istanbul, with my eyes closed". The poet listens to the cries of the birds, the calls of the bazaar sellers, the hammer blows at the ship docks, the curses and songs of the city dwellers.

 

On an unknown day in the future, however, a deep rumble will drown all that out, when a 51,000 cubic kilometer land mass moves five meters west with a jerk, thus triggering the first shock wave to push through the earth's crust towards the city. Suddenly the tension that had built up since the recent earthquake off Istanbul 253 years ago is released. "Snap". Within a few seconds, the quake reaches the city, causing houses to crumble, gas, electricity and water pipes to burst, and the telephone network to collapse. The quake lasts barely more than a minute - for the residents, this is just the beginning of the suffering. 30,000 deaths is the number calculated by the state disaster control, however international studies predict 90,000 deaths plus.

 

Scientists have been warning of this scenario for many years. The probability for an earthquake of magnitude 7.4 directly off the coast of Istanbul is more than sixty percent over the next thirty years, this calculation by the American Geo Logical Service is considered undisputed by experts worldwide. The catastrophe seems inevitable for the more than 15 million people who live in Istanbul. It is to be feared that the city could perish from the short-sightedness of power. "Whoever governs Istanbul will rule Turkey," said today's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once confident of victory over the country's largest city, which generates more than a third of Turkey's gross domestic product. But what if in reality fear reigns and under its rule the last chance to protect Istanbul from destruction passes by unused?

 

The rupture zone off the coast of Istanbul is an attraction for geophysicists. Countless international cooperations are dealing with the fault between the Anatolian microplate and the Eurasian continent. The local disaster control authority AFAD uses its own data to feed its automatic early warning system, which cuts gas and power lines, closes bridges and stops subways in the event of an emergency. Even more dangerous than the quake are the inevitable explosions, fires and chemical leaks.

 

There is no early warning system for the residents. Only a few seconds remain until the first earthquake wave arrives. No time to escape.

 

In dealing with probabilities, there are two types of people: those who pack their umbrellas with a sixty percent chance of rain, and those who don't - not even if the rain would be deadly. Nusret Suna is a man who wants to convince his fellow men of the meaning of the umbrella. The 64-year-old is the president of the Chamber of Civil Engineers in Istanbul, his office is less than a hundred meters from the bank of the Bosporus. "Sometimes we feel like the Cassandra of Istanbul," he says. "We warn, but nobody wants to hear the admonition.” It reads: Istanbul is not ready for the coming earthquake. According to estimates by the Chamber of Civil Engineers, half of the houses have been built illegally and in all probability do not meet the safety standards, up to 50,000 will be massively damaged in an earthquake, and up to 6,000 will bury their inhabitants under them. Nobody takes responsibility for this," says Suna, "not the politicians and neither the residents. The city bends to its fate and simply waits for the next quake.”

 

But Istanbul doesn't even need an earthquake to cause buildings to collapse. Houses repeatedly break down because of structural defects, most recently at the beginning of February 2019: An eight-story house buried 35 people, 21 of whom died. "It took an hour for the rescue workers to arrive on site," says Suna, explaining that the rescue lanes had been occupied. "Now imagine what would happen if thousands of buildings in the city collapsed.” It’s actually clear: the only way to prepare for an earthquake is to build an earthquake-proof building. But the conversion is expensive. In Istanbul, the city government has left this in large parts to the free market. This means that the redevelopment is concentrating on lucrative residential areas. In order to finance the conversion of the buildings, the builders enlarge the houses, add one or two more floors and make profit. In principle, these houses could then still be earthquake-proof - but the infrastructure is overloaded and life in the city is becoming increasingly cramped. When disaster strikes, everyone has to suffer. 2.4 million people will be without shelter; Turkey's electronic citizens' portal is supposed to show them the way to the next earthquake meeting point. Suna's assistant Alper Uluşan opens the official map on his smartphone, which identifies a small intersection at the end of the road as a meeting point. "If everyone from the neighbourhood meets there, we can't even breathe," says Uluşan and laughs dryly.

 

In the event of a catastrophe, open spaces are supposed to be available where people can find refuge. Tents are erected there, water connections, electricity and transport routes will be needed to reach the survivors. According to official statistics, there are 2872 such places of refuge, 77 of which the Chamber of Civil Engineers considers to be sufficiently equipped. Over the past decades, the city government has had residences, office buildings and shopping centers built on many of the designated open spaces. On many emergency transport routes - extra-wide roads that are supposed to enable the rescue services to get through quickly - it is now allowed to park for a fee at the roadsides. On the day of the earthquake, this will cost the lives of countless people. Until then, it is a lucrative source of income for the city.

 

"The quake will destroy everything," says Suna, and Uluşan adds: “The survivors will beg God to kill them too." Do they themselves make their own arrangements for the earthquake, make their homes safe or build up water supplies? Both shake their heads. In risk research, this phenomenon is called the perceptual paradox: people are aware of the extent of the danger, but they have no confidence that they will be protected by the authorities. The danger seems inevitable, and individual measures seem hopeless: Why anchor the wall unit in the wall when the building will collapse? Why build up water supplies when there are no shelters after the earthquake anyway? Fatalism has long since also seized the admonishers.

 

In Izmit, a hundred kilometers east of Istanbul, the rescue teams are rehearsing the emergency. They mill their way through concrete slabs piled several meters high, models of "pancaked buildings", as the language of the catastrophe calls them. "It's like back then," one whispers. "Only the sweet smell of decay is missing.” It happened in Izmit on August 17, 1999, what is yet to come in Istanbul. An earthquake measuring 7.5 caused the Anatolian Plate to slide west. 17,480 people died, 213,000 buildings were damaged, 600,000 people homeless, the economic damage amounted to about 18 billion Euros.

 

“Back then, with some friends, we pulled six survivors from the ruins," says Rece Şalcı. That changed his life. He and the other 2,200 members of the Rescue organisation AKUT had volunteered to train in their own free time and weekends for the task. Şalcı, 49 years old, is a teacher of geography, he looks exhausted. Today he works late into the night on the operational plan for the earthquake in Istanbul, tomorrow morning he has to stand in front of his class again. “We have got to work even harder in order to be prepared”, says Şalcı. To never be powerless facing the earthquake again, that's his goal. This ongoing commitment doesn’t work with his private life, says Recep Şalcı. He’s been going through a divorce. 

 

After the earthquake in Izmit, the state disaster control authority AFAD was founded. It was supposed to reform disaster management in Turkey and, with around 6,000 employees, operates the second largest earthquake monitoring network in Europe, with 1,056 monitoring stations throughout the country. How close the authority has come to its goal so far can hardly be measured from the outside - AFAD was not available for either an interview or for a statement.

 

In the event of an emergency, the information should converge with the state disaster control. During the quake, 120 so-called accelerographers distributed across Istanbul will measure ground movements. From this, maps are automatically generated highlighting where the greatest number of injured people and damage is expected. These are then shared with non-governmental aid organisations that support the rescue measures. AKUT expects a maximum of twelve hours until the forces have arrived from the most distant provinces. They then gather at meeting points in the east and west of the city to swarm into destroyed Istanbul. "That's what we train for all the time," says Recep Şalcı. “We will get them out of there.”

 

Celal Şengör looks out of his study from some distance over Istanbul, the city center is about 15 kilometers away, the fault 35 kilometers. He wants to be there when it takes place, he wants to see what he has been researching for decades, when earth jumps west five meters off Istanbul. "The Northanatolian fault is like an intelligence test: The quakes of the past centuries lie there as if enriched on a string of pearls - only the pearl off Istanbul is missing," explains Sengör. "None of our politicians pass this test.”

 

The 64-year-old geologist can also speak openly because he is respected worldwide and has an excellent network: In addition to his professorship at the Technical University in Istanbul, he is a member of countless high-ranking scientific associations. In his study room metal lava bombs from Eastern Anatolia hang from the ceiling, below them are piles of books in Turkish, English, German and French, according to him, his private library on geology and the history of the earth comprises more than 30,000 volumes. The fascination of the ground beneath his feet took hold of Şengör when, as a child, he read Jules Verne's “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Today, he himself seems like that peculiar researcher whose character he fell in love with - a fountain of knowledge with mineralogical blood in his veins, as Verne calls it.

 

How safely one lives on the edge of the fault depends to a large extent on the condition of the soil: better on solid granite than on soft sand or clay. The southwest of Istanbul around the former Atatürk airport stands on a dry lagoon, where the ground could liquefy in a severe quake. Only very few people in Istanbul have access to comprehensive earthquake trainings, most of which are students who are taught what to do in the first minutes of the quake: duck and hide. But many residents do not know how vulnerable their homes are and which parts of the city are considered high-risk areas. "There is no risk map I would rely on," says Şengör. "Except my own." His home is on solid ground and is reinforced with steel girders. He hopes to be there during the quake and not in town.

 

Of course, there were efforts to improve the infrastructure of the city to make it earthquake-proof, public buildings such as hospitals and schools have been renovated, and since 2012 there has been a law, which makes earthquake safety an obligation. But to rebuild the entire city, money is missing. And probably also political will. Many hope that the new mayor will change that. Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Kemalist party CHP declared during the election campaign that earthquake protection was of particular concern for him. In his victory speech at the end of June, he asked the Turkish State Government to work harmoniously with him when preparing for the earthquake. If Ankara rejects this offer, says Celal Şengör, no less than the country's independence is at stake: "Istanbul is Turkey's economic engine. If everything is in shambles here, the whole country will be dependent on European and international aid at a stroke." For decades Şengör has publicly warned of the effects of the big quake, today he is tired of it. "Common man only interest me as fossils," he says. He means: Who does not want to hear, must feel.

 

Perhaps man is not made to recognize complex dangers and prepare for them. A human life is only a blink of an eye in the face of the slowly grinding movements of the continental plates. Only shortly after a catastrophe, when the memory of the damage and suffering is fresh, the sense of risk is clear. As a study by the University of Prague has shown, memory lasts 25 years during flood catastrophes, within that time period, people settle at a cautious distance from the transgressed watercourses. After two generations, this knowledge has lost its effect.

 

Humans are beings in search for meaning, and meaning can hardly be found in statistics and probabilities. How can we close the gap between catastrophic future scenarios on the one hand and concrete foresight measures on the other? Experts in risk communication say that the only way to make the physical and psychological effects of catastrophes immediate is to make them experienceable. Their research has shown that an ancient human tradition can help us save the knowledge of catastrophes for more than two generations: storytelling. This should not only happen in museums or history books, but as directly as possible - psychological and neurological studies have shown that the more emotional the stories, the more influence they have. 

 

In order to make it easier to talk about traumatic experiences, civil protection activists in Japan, for example, are trying to accommodate the inhabitants of different communities together in camps - this increases the chances that people will start telling each other about their survival. Not only does it alleviate the suffering of those affected, but communication experts believe it can also contribute to preventive measures and a better perception of risk in the future.

 

We are aware of this tactic in man-made disasters such as wars, especially in Europe. We know that memories of the horrors of war are a powerful tool - we try to warn future generations of the mistakes of the past. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions do not leave man powerless. We can internalize this responsibility with the help of a culture of remembrance that tells of catastrophes and focuses on people, not statistics. Because it is not the number of collapsed houses or the probability of the next quake that makes us aware of the risk of Europe's trembling. It’s stories like those of 88-year-old Angelo Pesce, who as a child protected himself with a chair over his head from the glowing hail of stones from the volcano while the projectiles around him hit the ground and burst. Like the story of the Portuguese king, who in fear of another earthquake and tsunami preferred to live in a wooden palace instead of his stone city castle. Like the friends from Izmit, who pulled six people out of the rubble of the collapsed house and have not stopped rescuing since.

 

Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin 2019

PHOTOS Rafael Krötz
CO-AUTHOR Julia Lauter
TRANSLATOR Jana M. Mader