When the earthquakes struck late last Sunday and early Monday, I was besieged with messages from anxious family and friends back in America. “Are you OK?” they asked, the way they always do whenever anything happens in this part of the world. Fortunately, I was able to report that yes, we were fine. The massive quakes occurred in southeast Turkey near the Syria border, very far from our home here in Istanbul.
Like many others, we spent Monday glued to the news, watching with horror as CNNTurk showed images of buildings collapsing, of survivors sobbing while rescuers searched the rubble for their loved ones, of the multitudes suddenly left homeless, or else afraid to return to their homes, stranded outside shivering in the freezing weather. As of Wednesday, news reports put the death toll at 11,000 between Turkey and neighboring Syria. That number could reach 20,000, some fear.
Winter arrived very late this year — just a week or two ago, you could see people here in Istanbul walking outside in shorts. Now, as I write this, outside the early morning streets are covered in snow, a brittle Arctic wind pounds the windows. All I can say, thinking about those people down south, huddled in government buildings, sleeping on floors of municipal buildings with donated blankets, is that it feels profoundly good to have a home. The buildings we saw collapse on the TV look very similar to ours, and it’s disturbing to imagine how your whole world, everything you possess, including your life, can come crashing down in a matter of seconds.
Having lived in Northern California for many years, I am no stranger to earthquakes. In ‘95, I was rudely jolted from bed one morning when a modest but sturdy 5.0 rocked the North Coast. It slammed just hard enough to send everything sideways for a heart-stopping second, so I can just imagine how a 7.4 or 7.8 must have felt for those who experienced the two earthquakes here this past week. The first one hit about 4 in the morning, while the residents slept. Can you imagine that? For those people, Sunday evening was probably the usual Sunday, a bit of dinner and relaxing before bed to gear up for the week ahead. You go to bed assuming tomorrow is another Monday. Then as you sleep the earth opens up and swallows you whole.
Some people, perhaps blessedly, probably never even woke up. Those who did awoke to a nightmare, one that has not yet ended.
Here in Istanbul, we are anxiously looking on, but also dealing with the onset of this late winter. Schools (including my university) are closed this week because of the snow, hundreds of flights at the airports were canceled, the city pulverized by freezing rains and relentless winds, not to mention the fact that the earthquakes did some damage to the country’s power infrastructure, leading to some outages and conservation measures.
Of course, we in Istanbul and the rest of the country were lucky. We have roofs over our heads. I think of our 3-year-old son, Leo, asleep now in the other room. He’s had a bit of flu, but is feeling better. His grandparents and my wife are also still asleep, cozy and warm while temperatures outside are freezing. I shudder as I think of those people waiting in despair in the cold for rescuers to arrive, wondering if their loved ones trapped in the rubble are still alive.
Yes, we are very far away and safe, but the earthquakes still hit home. After all, Istanbul also lies on a faultline — the 1999 ‘quake here left many thousands dead, so for us it feels like we just dodged a bullet — this time.
James Tressler is a former Lost Coast resident and journalist. He now lives and writes in Istanbul.