Sat, Feb 08, 2020 - Page 6 News List

Albania quake exposes construction dodges


Vladimir Leka lights a gas cylinder in his quake-damaged house in Thumane, Albania, on Jan. 31.

Photo: AFP

When a powerful earthquake struck Albania more than two months ago, buildings collapsed like houses of cards atop sleeping families. As the country struggles to put the pieces back together, it is facing a structural reality that the disaster exposed: the scourge of illegal construction that has allowed unsafe homes to sprout up across the poor Balkan country.

For decades, builders, engineers and officials have flouted safety codes, piling story upon story on top of homes that were not built to support such weight.

When the magnitude 6.4 quake shook the country on Nov. 26 last year, nearly 90 buildings were reduced to rubble, while more than 80,000 were damaged, with 51 lives lost.

While not all of the devastation could be blamed on illegal construction, experts say it was a key factor in the extent and deadliness of the disaster.

Two months on in the town of Thumane, one of the hardest-hit areas, Vjollca and Meleq Mesiti consider themselves lucky to be alive, but are still grappling with the loss of their home and bakery, which was turned into a pile of bricks.

“A whole life’s work collapsed in a matter of seconds,” said Vjollca Mesiti, 49, as the couple search through the rubble for expensive equipment.

“We’re still in shock,” 53-year-old Meleq Mesiti said.

After hurling brick after brick out of the rubble, Vjollca Mesiti starts pulling out dozens of baking pans, some still brimming with baked loaves covered in dust.

“Life goes on!” she said.

The Mesitis, who are staying with relatives, were among 17,000 people made homeless overnight by the earthquake.

About 10,000 of those are still living in tents in the heart of winter, according to official figures.

Albanian authorities say they are finally cracking down on those who have shirked building laws, a practice that dates back to the unbridled construction boom that followed the fall of communism in the early 1990s.

Regulations could not keep up with the crazed urbanization as developers rushed to scoop up land and erect buildings.

“One thing is certain, in the majority of cases, the loss of human lives is due to the violation from A to Z of all building regulations,” said Luljeta Bozo, an engineer and university lecturer in the capital, Tirana.

Since the earthquake, more than 80 people have been arrested, including builders, engineers, officials and former mayors, said Elisabeta Imeraj, Tirana’s chief prosecutor.

“We’ve been able to prove that in some cases there was not even the minimum amount of documentation needed to issue a building permit,” Imeraj told reporters.

Some applications had no earthquake risk assessments at all, she said, adding that in some cases buildings had up to four extra floors illegally tacked on.

In a country with a widespread corruption problem, experts say bribes have helped get some illegally constructed buildings made “legal” after the fact.

The government has pledged to toughen penalties for those who ignore regulations, for example by seizing or demolishing illegal property — generally not easy to carry out.

The government has costed out a 1 billion euro (US$1.10 billion) rebuilding effort ahead of a donor conference in Brussels on Feb. 17.

Authorities have chosen 18 sites where new housing blocks are to be erected for those made homeless by the quake.

However, in a country still emerging from its communist past, when private property was banned, some are strongly attached to their land.

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