March 1, 2023
Purdue civil engineering professor joins reconnaissance team assessing the devastating destruction from deadly quakes in Turkey
Quake damage ‘overwhelming’ along disaster zone where 12 million people live
Ayhan Irfanoglu spent his early childhood in the Turkish town of İskenderun, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and an hour’s drive from Antakya, the biblical city of Antioch. Returning to his home country following the series of massive earthquakes on Feb. 6 that have killed over 50,000 people, Irfanoglu says the devastation is overwhelming. But the Purdue University professor remains steadfast in his mission as a civil and structural engineer.
“When I was walking around, I actually remembered things from 45 years ago that I had forgotten — a particular monument in İskenderun that is very spectacular, a monument with a bright crimson Turkish flag. It just hit me,” says Irfanoglu, who spent five days assessing damage from the devastating quakes. “But I’m here to help the Turkish people and to share what I know, what I see with my colleagues. It hasn’t hit me on a personal level yet. But I’m sure it will come at some point. So far, the engineer and the adrenaline are helping.”
Irfanoglu joined three other U.S. experts as part of an advance team dispatched to Turkey to review destruction from the quake and make first-hand observations to inform U.S. teams that may travel to the region in the coming weeks. On the team is earthquake engineer Ayse Hortacsu of the Applied Technology Council who, like Irfanoglu, is affiliated with the U.S.-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. The latter two experts with the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association are Robb Moss, a geotechnical engineering professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and geologist Ozgur Kozaci at global engineering firm Mott MacDonald.
During the mission, Irfanoglu and Hortacsu made 20 stops along the quake’s disaster zone spanning some 280 miles to determine what needs to be done when larger teams of structural engineers from the U.S. and across the globe begin arriving in March. They were joined by colleagues Altug Erberik, a structural engineering professor at the Middle East Technical University and president of the Earthquake Engineering Association of Turkey; and Firat Aydin, a structural engineer and researcher at TED University in Ankara.
Irfanoglu, Purdue faculty member since 2005, who also serves as associate head of the Lyles School of Civil Engineering, also plans to join a team of engineers from Purdue and other universities to return later in March. That mission is supported by the American Concrete Institute and will be led by Santiago Pujol, a Purdue alumnus and former faculty member now at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
“Engineers try to design so we avoid these high consequences from earthquakes. These earthquakes are supposed to be rare events where there might be high consequences if not mitigated. Well, in this case, it happened,” says Irfanoglu. “I don’t think we have much experience with earthquakes at this high intensity levels in urban areas. They were so intense that this sequential, large-fault rupture has tested … our understanding of these so-called rare events.”
The death toll from the powerful earthquake has eclipsed 44,000 people in Turkey and nearly 6,000 in Syria, with tens of thousands more left homeless. Over 185,000 buildings and structures in southeastern Turkey have been destroyed or so severely damaged that they will need to be torn down, the country’s disaster agency AFAD reports. The 7.8 magnitude quake struck in the early morning hours of Feb. 6 in southern and central Turkey, as well as in northern and western Syria. Nine hours later, a magnitude 7.5 quake was registered 60 miles away in the Kahramanmaraş province.
“Engineers are tasked with designing structures to save lives. And first and foremost, that’s our priority — to save lives,” Irfanoglu says. “But we also need to save the property. We need to save the buildings to save the people. This is a major part of their livelihood, a place they call home. But many of these people, unfortunately, are homeless now. They won’t be allowed to go back home; they can’t go back home.”
This is Irfanoglu’s fourth trip to his native country following massive earthquakes. The first was in August 1999, when he arrived as a doctoral student from California Institute of Technology, just days after the 7.6 magnitude quake struck near İzmit in northwestern Turkey. Thousands of people were killed, and large parts of a number of midsize towns and cities were destroyed.
Although Irfanoglu was not yet a Purdue faculty member, he joined a team of Boilermaker engineers led by Julio Ramirez, now the Karl H. Kettelhut Professor in Civil Engineering at Purdue, after the May 2003 quake in Bingöl in eastern Turkey. Following the quake that hit the Van province in far eastern Turkey in October 2011, Irfanoglu came as a member of Purdue’s civil engineering faculty.
“To this day, I try to follow my late father’s request after the August 1999 earthquake,” he says. “When I called him and my mother after that earthquake to get their blessing, he said, ‘Come as an engineer. There are enough hands to pull the rubble.’ So, I came here as an engineer. I still come as an engineer. Of course, I am Turkish by birth, by culture, so it is very difficult.”
The similarities, he adds, are stark between this latest 7.8 magnitude quake and the 7.6 temblor in 1999 near İzmit, which killed over 17,000 people. “Both of them were overwhelming, terrifying,” Irfanoglu says. Even though thousands of lives were lost, and thousands of buildings collapsed in the 1999 quake, this latest quake “was on a different scale — much bigger, far worse.” Specifically, “the magnitude of this quake was so intense that the recorded motions were on the order of 3 to 5 feet per second, even 6 or 7 feet per second in some cases.”
In reality, the first tremor the morning of Feb. 6 was the strongest to hit Turkey since the 1939 earthquake in Erzincan, which also is estimated to have had a 7.8 magnitude. This quake and the one in 1939 now rank as Turkey’s second strongest, after the North Anatolia earthquake over 3½ centuries ago in 1668. The Feb. 6 disaster also is the deadliest seismic event in the history of modern Turkey and the deadliest in Syria since the 1822 Aleppo earthquake.
Initial observations of the damage from the latest quake show many taller buildings collapsed onto their footprint or slumped on their sides “like a deck of cards,” Irfanoglu says. That, he explains, could point to issues with detailing in the structural elements or simply overwhelming deformation demands. Perhaps local jurisdictions can’t or aren’t enforcing current building codes, or contractors on the ground don’t understand the complex codes they aim to implement. Perhaps the ground motions were just too intense, he says.
“Some buildings survived, and we don’t know yet why they survived — whether they were built beyond the building code minimums, whether they did something in the construction particularly well or whether they were just lucky,” he says. “All of that is still to be determined. That’s the mission of the field data collection teams that will be traveling to the region, like the one supported by American Concrete Institute. Things are changing; the situation is dynamic. Even the type of aid needed has changed with time.”
To prevent another tragedy, Irfanoglu says, it is essential that practical design codes with more stringent criteria that are easy to check must be implemented. While the region recovers, this experience can make cities more aware of the importance of solid building practices.
He also points to successes in Chile and Japan. In those countries in quake-prone zones, buildings have performed well, withstanding the intense motions from high-magnitude temblors thanks to their stiff structural systems. Those structures are often built with generous amounts of robust structural walls, limiting deformations and, thereby, maintaining both the integrity and the shape of the structural systems. They save lives, and they save property, Irfanoglu says.
“The evidence is there for what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “So, we need to change our thinking in engineering: that we’re designing for these rare events. Because when that rare event happens to large populations of people, the whole society would be impacted. In this case, there are 12 million people in 11 cities and towns in the disaster zone.”
That’s the challenge. Engineers can learn from these disasters only if they make observations without preconceptions, Irfanoglu says. If they simply think this is a repeat of what happened before and that it’s unavoidable, experts will miss a great opportunity to learn and, in the end, implement new measures and enforcement that will save human lives.
“There are things that will come out of this earthquake that engineers will learn from,” he says. “I don’t think it’s fair to the people, the property owners, or simply to the society that the engineers take risks supposedly on their behalf because at the end, they pay. I think that if they know it only takes a little more to have safer buildings, I’m sure they would be willing to pay for it up front, and then they would have that safety and security in their buildings, their homes.”
Turkish officials are now beginning to focus on tomorrow even while assessing the depth and breadth of the death toll and damage from this latest quake. They plan to start building tens of thousands of new homes as early as this month, mandating that new buildings will be no taller than three or four stories, built on firmer ground and to higher standards and in consultation with experts in engineering and geosciences, and perhaps beyond.
While he’s thankful his relatives in Turkey are safe and were not severely impacted by the quake, Irfanoglu also knows the resiliency and resolve of the Turkish people. He says that was apparent as he toured the disaster zone — as an engineer but also as a native Turk.
“Disasters change the culture. Of course, the losses of life and livelihoods are there, so it’s going to be very different for the surviving people in this region. They’re going to rebuild; I have absolutely no doubt about that,” Irfanoglu says. “But it’s going to change them. It’s a very sad and sorrowful place right now. But at the same time, the Turkish people can recover from this. I know they will.”
Writer: Phillip Fiorini, email@example.com
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