Spanish City Suffers Two Earthquakes

By George Potter

Spain is not considered a particularly earthquake-prone nation, although over the past 500 years, the Iberian Peninsula has experienced thousands of minor tremors and a half dozen major quakes that have taken thousands of lives.
 
The most recent quake on May 11, 2011, affected the city of Lorca, a municipality of some 92,000 residents, located in the extreme Southeast corner of the country. Lorca is the third most populated city of Murcia Province, exceeded only by the capital, Murcia, and the port of Cartagena. Lorca has been continually inhabited for more than 2,500 years, although the city as it is known today has its roots in the period of the eighth century. The Middle Ages brought certain prosperity to the area, and a varied agricultural base is still the economic mainstay today. The city boasts of extensive ancient walls dating to the Middle Ages, a well-preserved hilltop castle, numerous palaces, and dozens of centuries-old churches. The earthquake severely damaged much, and destroyed some, of this cultural heritage. The two freeway tunnels--one 1,500 feet long in one direction and the other some 2,500 feet long in the other direction--were also damaged. Repairs are expected to require more time and expenditures. The Eurotap (Tunnel Assessment Program) classified these road tunnels as the most unsafe in Europe some four years ago.
 
The first tremor, with a magnitude of 4.4 on the Richter scale, occurred at 5:05 p.m. Its epicenter was a few miles north of Lorca and was felt in areas up to 90 miles away. At 6:47 p.m., the second quake, of 5.2 magnitude, shook the area, causing partial or total collapse of a number of buildings, including several church bell towers. The eight mortal casualties and most of the injuries were caused by falling debris from these structures. The majority of the buildings most affected by the quakes were of brick or concrete construction, nearly all did not have metallic structural components, and almost all were one to three stories high.
 
The regional and national emergency services were immediately mobilized; dozens of fire and rescue service members of surrounding provincial and municipal services responded. Within hours, personnel and mechanical units of the Army’s Military Emergency Units were underway. Within 12 hours, more than 500 professionals plus many volunteers (civil protection groups) were on scene organizing urban rescue operations, safe zone coordination, and relocation areas for the more than 20,000 displaced citizens, and inspecting damaged structures.  
 
Although the two most important cities of the region, Murcia and Cartagena, have municipal emergency services, Lorca’s fire and rescue brigade is one of the dozen units that make up the regional consortium, a system used quite frequently in Spain as an alternative to civil service entities. Staffing is tight, an average of six firefighters per shift, although the mobile apparatus fleet is up to date and the station is fairly new and spacious. Firefighters and building specialists from all over the country have gone to Lorca to aid the brigade and participate in the monumental task of inspecting the damages and evaluating what buildings can or should be recovered or condemned. Early estimates indicate that several hundred buildings will be declared unsafe and will more than likely be demolished. What will the future be for these thousands of residents remains to be seen, as many will have completely lost their homes and belongings?
 
As indicated above, Spain has experienced several major earthquakes that have caused numerous fatalities. The first recorded fatal quake shook the Girona province in the northeast corner of the country in 1428, taking at least 800 victims. Another quake, in 1522, took some 1,000 lives, while another half dozen quakes between 1530 and 1884 caused extreme damage to buildings and killed more than 2,000 people. The quake off the south coast of Portugal in 1755 caused between 60,000 and 1200,000 deaths, including some 15,000 Spanish victims. This particular quake, of an estimated magnitude of 8.5, caused 50-foot-high tidal waves that affected nearly all of Western Europe. Geologists and earthquake specialists have declared that the country experiences some 2,500 tremors annually, the vast majority in the range of 1 to 3 on the Richter scale.
 
Spain’s building codes have included seismic-resistant design and construction for many years. Municipal architects review building projects, which must be approved prior to the beginning of construction. This is especially important in areas of the country that are prone to seismic activities, as well as in the several thousand-square-mile southeastern corner of the country. Several of the buildings that suffered the most devastating damage curiously were built within the past decade or so, and supposedly met the seismic-resistant codes. One of these buildings, a four-floor apartment block, suffered a “pancake” collapse. Another fairly recently built residential building that suffered very serious damage and was condemned to be razed, totally collapsed minutes before the demolition was to begin.  

Relief is now being organized by the national and regional governments, already strained by the economic crisis that hit the country more than two years ago. Several million Euros (the European currency unit) are being distributed to the inhabitants. Those who completely lost their homes and belongings will receive an equivalent of some $70,000, whereas those whose homes were damaged but not destroyed are to receive about one-third to one-quarter of that amount. Additional funding and assistance includes partial payment of rentals, mortgage offsets, low-interest loans for business recovery, and so on.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters' Association (ASELF).

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