ANKARA: The helmeted engineer drove his pointed tool into concrete to test whether the Durmus Uygun building would collapse when the big, dreaded earthquake finally hit Istanbul.
“I am very confident but my children are not convinced, so we are doing this test,” said Uygun, who lives in a poor and densely populated neighborhood in Turkey’s big cities.
“If the outcome is good, we will live in peace. But who knows where we will be when the earthquake hits? We may be in the supermarket or at work – that is what scares us.”
In his fifties and wearing a black hat, Uygun isn’t the only person living in fear in Istanbul.
Turkey’s cultural and economic capital is home to as many as 20 million people, and many are still haunted by memories of the last “big one” that hit the east of the city in 1999. More than 17,000 people died, including 1,000 in Istanbul.
The city has grown exponentially since then, becoming a magnet for people attracted by its booming economy – and oblivious to the active fault line that runs along its southern edge.
That changed on February 6, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed more than 48,000 in southeastern Turkey and nearly 6,000 over the border in Syria, leaving entire cities in ruins.
Since then, Istanbul residents have been gripped by a mass psychosis, who have ordered more than 140,000 checks of the kind being carried out in a Uygun apartment block.
By the municipality’s own admission, approximately 100,000 buildings would collapse or be seriously damaged in the event of a 7.5-magnitude earthquake.
Fifty teams of engineers have been touring the city since last month’s disaster, measuring the quality of concrete and the width of rebar bars.
If the danger to a building is deemed “too high”, it may be ordered to be demolished and the occupants forced to leave.
Some southern regions of Istanbul are only 15 km away from the North Anatolian Fault, which is different from the active East Anatolian Fault that was hit by an earthquake last month.
Seismologists have calculated a 47 percent chance that an earthquake of magnitude above 7.3 will strike Istanbul within 30 years.
Two blocks from the Uygun building, hardware store owner Ali Nazir has begun selling whistles to locals who fear getting trapped under tons of concrete.
“People are afraid,” said Nazir, whose convenience store is on the ground floor of a 12-story tower.
Some residents say they have started storing biscuits and water bottles under their beds in case an earthquake strikes in the middle of the night, leaving them trapped.
Uygun prepared some emergency bags for his family containing enough to survive while waiting for help.
Ugur Erisoglu, a wholesaler in Istanbul, offers earthquake survival bags for 200 lira ($10) containing torches, blankets, medical supplies and neck braces.
“We used to sell 1,000 a month,” Erisoglu said. “We have received 15,000 orders since the earthquake, including 8,000 from Istanbul.”
The sudden reminder of the threat to Turkey’s main city is forcing some to seriously consider moving home.
“There is strong demand for the northern regions of Istanbul, which are far from the fault line, and for individual houses,” said Mehmet Erkki, general manager of Zingat, a real estate listing platform.
Searches also exploded for cities such as Edirne and Kırklareli, located in a less earthquake-prone area 200 kilometers northwest of Istanbul.
Neil Akat, a clinical psychologist, says she has been seeing patients “who are desperately planning to move from Istanbul.”
“Many no longer feel safe at home. They are on high alert, always on alert. On the street, they choose safer sidewalks in case a building collapses.”
Akat said she spoke to some colleagues who told her, “Some (of our patients) can no longer think rationally.”
She said that this fear can control anyone without discrimination on the basis of age or social class.
Cecile Aktimeur, a young woman from Istanbul with a stunning view of the city from her twelfth-floor apartment, had been considering leaving for some time.
She said last month’s disaster had made relocation a “priority”.
“Even if nothing happened to my building,” she said, “I probably wouldn’t be able to bear what I see.”