Earthquakes Destroy. People Rebuild.

She wanted to retrieve her medicine, and if memory serves all these years later, also a hairbrush and a photograph from her apartment.

It was in 2009, a couple of days after an earthquake flattened L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, in central Italy. The authorities had closed the city to residents, but the woman and her sister had sneaked in. I found her leaning on a cane in a broken, empty plaza staring up at a midcentury building that the quake had somehow sheared horizontally so that it looked like a pot with its lid askew.

She asked for help.

From afar, we measure catastrophes like the calamity in Turkey and Syria by totaling the numbers of dead and buildings destroyed. Reports describe a spectacularly wide disaster zone, recovery efforts that are too slow, leaving untold hundreds and possibly thousands of victims still buried, alive and dead, under the rubble — and hundreds of thousands more in the cold without homes, food, drinking water or medical supplies.

It is too much to process, the loss of lives and history. The tiny Jewish community in Antakya, in central Turkey, dates back 2,500 years. The head of the community and his wife both died in the quake. The city’s synagogue is now gone.

The Habibi Neccar Mosque collapsed, too. The earthquake’s destruction was ecumenical. The mosque dates back to 638. It was a church and a mosque, depending on who ruled the city. Over the centuries, authority passed from the caliphs to the Byzantines, who succumbed to Seljuks, who were ousted by the Crusaders, who ceded to Mamluks, who were replaced by Ottomans, and eventually Antakya was annexed by Turkey. The quake erased whole swathes of history.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
  • A Flawed Design: Residents of a new upscale tower in Turkey were told it was earthquake resistant, but the building collapsed anyway. A close look offers clues as to why.
  • A Disaster Within a Disaster: For some Syrians living as refugees in Turkey as well as those still back home, the quake’s destruction was far worse than anything they had seen in more than a decade of civil war.
  • In Their Own Words: Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of cities have been gutted. Here is how witnesses described the disaster.

The biblical city of Antioch, Antakya is also where the word “Christian” was supposedly first used. The Apostle Peter led the church there before establishing a church in Rome. Paul preached in Antioch. The quake collapsed the St. Paul Orthodox Church, as well.

We build out of brick and steel, asphalt and stone, and forget how fragile cities are until something like this happens, then we struggle to rebuild. The urge to urbanize is hard-wired in us because cities are life.

And like other forms of life, they need constant care to grow strong and productive over time. In Turkey, that clearly didn’t happen. After an earthquake in 1999 killed 17,000, building codes were introduced and updated. But the authorities turned a blind eye to developers who ignored seismic regulations, and they failed to check projects that supposedly complied with the rules. In 2018, Turkey’s government granted amnesty to developers who violated the codes in return for fees, without requiring that they actually make their buildings safe.

“We draft the laws well, but we do not implement them,” Pelin Pinar Giritlioglu, the president of the Istanbul branch of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, told my colleagues James Glanz and Ceylan Yeginsu.

According to The Associated Press, a Turkish government agency has acknowledged that more than half of all buildings in the country don’t meet earthquake standards.

L’Aquila, like Antakya, lies in a notorious earthquake zone. A quake in L’Aquila in 1349 killed 800 residents; another in 1703 killed more than 3,000, prompting Pope Clement XI to send priests and nuns freed of their celibacy to repopulate the city.

The quake in 2009 killed more than 300 people, destroyed hundreds of historical buildings and left tens of thousands homeless. Italian authorities rushed to resettle survivors in tents and temporary housing on the outskirts of town and on the coast, promising to rebuild what had been destroyed.

A boastful Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister at the time, declared these “new towns” and prefab houses an “Italian miracle.” But these sad, costly, cramped settlements, disconnected from transit and civic life, became permanent as the years passed; there were probes into contractors’ links with the mafia; and L’Aquila’s recovery stalled.

You may rightly ask about the logic of rebuilding time and again in these risky places. The notion comes up around a different threat: climate change. Scientists predict large-scale migrations in the coming years from zones where rising seas, floods, droughts and extreme weather will make life increasingly difficult or impossible. Already, climate change has displaced millions of people around the world.

But logic is not the point.

Cities are only nominally bricks and mortar, after all. To residents they are repositories of a hairbrush and a photograph — collective threads of a social fabric that, over time, weave together a life, a family, a history, a neighborhood, a community. The least government can be expected to do is ensure that buildings and streets are up to code and that cities answer to the needs of their residents, not to developers and politicians. But in much of the world that’s the exception.

When I returned to L’Aquila a few years after the quake, I found a group of men chatting in the empty Piazza Duomo. One of them, a retired lawyer named Antonio Antonacci, told me that his house had been lost in the quake. He moved in with relatives an hour or so away.

He was lucky, he said, but every week he still made the trip back to the piazza so he could meet his old friends who, like him, had scattered. As they had before the quake, they smoked cigars and wiled away the afternoon.

The city was still a shambles. But it was home.

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