On Feb. 6, a powerful tremor in Turkey tore millions of people from their sleep. But I awoke to a call from my fiancé, Can, at 4:17 a.m.
“Come here as fast as you can,” he said.
He was in our apartment in Adana, a city in southern Turkey where we lived with our three dogs. I could hear banging and creaking through the phone.
“Buildings must have collapsed everywhere,” he said, as he and the dogs hid under the dining table.
I was on assignment in the southwestern city of Antalya, far from the quake zone. News channels were reporting that a magnitude 7.8 earthquake had struck southern Turkey, and that the damage was already catastrophic.
For me, this was not some terrible misfortune in a faraway land. The afflicted area was the backdrop to my life, where I was born and grew up, where my family lives and owns a restaurant, and where I had planned to build my future. After spending 15 years abroad, I returned to Adana during the Covid-19 pandemic and rediscovered my love for the city — its warm Mediterranean climate; its proximity to both the sea and the Taurus Mountains; its streets, lined with palm and orange trees that blossom in the spring.
Earthquakes have always threatened life in Adana. In 1998, a magnitude 6.3 quake struck the city. I had been asleep on the couch, knocked out by a fever, when my mother, barefoot and in a nightdress, grabbed me and carried me downstairs to the yard. While our home survived, my grandparents’ building collapsed. Luckily, they were not there at the time.
After Can called, I wanted to fly straight home, but all the flights had been canceled. So, I called my family to make sure they were OK and then began the hourslong drive to Adana, where I went on to help cover the aftermath of the earthquake for The New York Times. The earthquake — and reporting on the fallout — forced me to consider what leaving Adana for a safer city would mean.
Because I have reported from conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Ukraine, I thought I would be prepared to witness the temblor’s destruction. Instead, I was deeply unsettled to see cities I know so well reduced to ruins.
After arriving in Adana around noon, I went straight to our restaurant and hugged my family. From there, Can and I headed to the rubble sites, coming face to face with desperation in the streets. In the afternoon, we went to Hatay, a province in southeastern Turkey, which had become nearly unrecognizable. I began to report from the ground and traversed the area on foot for days, often without cellphone reception, food, water or toilets. We even slept in the car.
Though Adana was less affected by the earthquake than other cities, 13 of its buildings collapsed and more than 400 people died. Seismologists have warned that another temblor could more directly strike the city. Many people have left, heading to summer homes on the Mediterranean coast, mountain houses or other cities where relatives can help them resettle. Despite my objections, my parents, who had been sleeping at their restaurant, decided to return to their building, which was built in the 1970s. Can was ready to leave, but it took me a few days to come to terms with the thought of departing Adana, a good home base for a roaming freelance journalist. But given the circumstances, I knew we needed to find a new location — and that would mean facing higher inflation amid Turkey’s economic turmoil.
With key elections scheduled for mid-May, Istanbul deserves journalistic attention, but it too has a high earthquake risk — and a high cost of living. We also considered Turkey’s capital, Ankara, which is in the center of the country. Its distance from faults makes it safer. We spent two days there looking for apartments, but people who had fled the earthquake zone had already arrived, causing rent prices to skyrocket.
So we returned to Adana, where rent is cheaper, although the earthquake threat never disappears. Still, I wanted advice.
“What are the risks for us, staying in Adana?” I asked a prominent Turkish geologist, Naci Gorur.
He said that pressure on the fault lines crossing the Adana basin had grown, increasing the chances of another earthquake in the region. He recommended that I find a building built after 2018, when Turkey last updated its building codes to protect against earthquakes.
We love the three-bedroom apartment we were living in when the earthquake struck. It is spacious, with good light, and is within walking distance to cafes and shops. The nearby park is filled with orange trees. I have years of good memories there.
But the building dates to 1975, when construction codes were looser. Fearing it could collapse in an earthquake, we looked for newer rentals.
In the end, the only thing we found within our budget was a one-bedroom in a gray residential area, far from the city center. A civil engineer checked out the building’s documents and said they looked OK, so we boxed up our belongings and moved.
Now we live far from the orange blossoms and the charm of our old neighborhood. But the new place does have some advantages: We are on the ground floor and we have a yard. So if the earth starts shaking, we will grab the dogs, run outside, and hope for the best.
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