Lorca: empty homes, empty promises

A year after the earthquake, 2,000 families have yet to return to their homes

A resident calling on a neighbor in a building condemned after the tremors of 2011.
A resident calling on a neighbor in a building condemned after the tremors of 2011.FRANCISCO BONILLA (REUTERS)

A year after the earthquake that hit Lorca, the rubble may have been cleared, but much of the town of 90,000 people in Murcia still shows the scars, dotted with the empty spaces where more than 250 apartment blocks once stood, and with others propped up by scaffolding. Promises to rebuild blocks have so far come to nothing and more than 7,000 people are homeless.

Saturnina Martínez, the town councilor tasked with coordinating the reconstruction, says that the task of assessing the full extent of the damage has revealed that many more buildings than was originally believed have been damaged.

The town hall admits that in the last year, just three permits have been granted to build apartment blocks, and 30 for individual houses. No work has yet begun. Residents say the bureaucracy involved in getting permission to repair their homes is a nightmare.

Aside from the 250 buildings demolished, home to 1,164 families, a further 160 properties are yet to be assessed, but cannot be inhabited. If they are to be demolished, it hasn't been decided who would pay for it. Two schools have been knocked down, and 11 others are under repair. Lorca's two hospitals are still not functioning properly.

The failure of the authorities to deal with the situation is already having an impact, says Catalina Lorenzo, a health official, who says that there has been a sharp decline in births, and some 10,000 people have moved away. The longer it takes to begin rebuilding, the less likely they are to return, she adds. Local shopkeepers say that they are close to ruin, with around 10 percent of stores closed permanently.

Tourism has been hit hard, and most of the city's historic buildings are still closed after suffering serious damage. All but one of Lorca's 16 churches are also closed.

We could have done more and we could have done it more quickly"

After the disaster, the central government set up a special commission to oversee reconstruction. Inmaculada García, who heads the commission, apologizes for the inaction: "We have been working very hard and we have achieved a lot, but I'm sure that we could have done a lot more than we have and we could have done it more quickly."

Residents in parts of Lorca have decided after more than a year to return to their homes, even though they have not been repaired. Many say that they still have not received money from a special fund set up by the regional and central governments to help them face the cost of repairs. Most have no choice after being told by their insurance companies that they will no longer pay for rented accommodation.

"This is madness. We still don't know if our homes are to be demolished, rebuilt, or simply repaired," says local resident Juan Luis, adding that he has yet to be given any money by the commission set up to help people rebuild their homes.

"They told us not to worry, even if we didn't have insurance. But it's been a year now, and this is getting me down. We are living in a ruin, and I spend all my time fighting with the town hall and the damage assessors," he says.

"We've lived here for 30 years, surrounded by friends and family; these are our streets, our shops," says one resident, who has had to leave rented accommodation because the local authority will no longer pay her rent. She adds that she has been told that the building contractor tasked with repairing her apartment block has been deliberately delaying work so as to be able to charge more. "They have tricked us, and not kept any of the promises they made," she says of the local authorities.

The details of a seismic disaster

- On May 11, 2011, Lorca was hit by two earthquakes. The first took place at 5.05pm, and measured 4.5 on the Richter Scale. The second followed at 6.47pm, reaching 5.1 and was registered as VII or "very strong" on the Mercalli intensity scale. In the next four days, there were nine aftershocks.

- The epicenter was six kilometers southwest of the city at a distance of two kilometers underground. The city is located close to the Alhama Fault, where the Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet.

- Nine people were killed, and 300 injured, mainly from roof tiles crashing to the ground.

- Some 30,000 people slept in the open air on the night of the first quake for fear of aftershocks.

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