Spain earthquake leaves ancient city perilously fragile

Spain earthquake: Two earthquakes that hit Lorca, Spain, Wednesday evening killed at least 9 people and injured hundreds. Thousands have been left homeless.

Alberto Saiz/AP
A police officer looks at some of the damage in Lorca, Spain, May 12, a day after an earthquake. Thousands of Spaniards stunned by the country's deadliest earthquake in 55 years didn't know Thursday whether they would be able to return to their homes following a pair of moderate temblors that killed nine people and caused extensive damage in this small agricultural city.

Residents of Lorca in southeastern Spain slept on rubble-filled streets last night after two earthquakes hit the centuries-old city, killing at least nine people and injuring almost 300.

The first 4.5 magnitude quake hit shortly after 5 p.m. local time Wednesday followed by the larger 5.1 magnitude temblor at 6.47 p.m., according to the United States Geological Survey. Dozens of aftershocks have been felt. It was the deadliest series of quakes in Spain since 1956.

“We’re on the streets. We’re scared. People don’t know what to do. Everything is bad,” says Consuelo Gallardo in a telephone interview. Her mother’s building is in shambles.

“We can’t go into our homes. We’re only allowed to gather the indispensable. An entire neighborhood will have to be entirely tore down,” says Mrs. Gallardo, who spoke from Lorca’s La Torrecilla sporting center, which is being used to shelter some of the thousands who have been left homeless.

Tens of thousands slept on the street last night unable to enter buildings that could still be at risk of collapse. Officials blame falling rubble for many of the injuries.

“We’re in the middle of a panic attack because the church is about to collapse,” says a man reached by phone in the El Carmen Church who did not want to give his name.

Francisco Jódar, Lorca’s mayor, told journalists the city “looks like Beirut, with everything torn to the ground and huge cracks on the walls. It’s like waking to a nightmare following a long night, with every neighbor in the street."

The region’s President Ramón Luis Valcárcel said 80 percent of the buildings in Lorca are damaged and the country’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero assured reconstruction expenses “would not be shortchanged.”

Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said 420 military personnel are involved in rescue efforts and that shelter for 3,500 people would be ready for tonight. “I hope all those who can’t sleep in their homes have a decent place to spend the night,” Mr. Rubalcaba said in Lorca.

“The reaction has been fabulous. Everyone is helping,” said Gallardo. But questions are sure to be raised, especially because many of the damaged buildings were newly built.

“Many of the new ones fell,” she said. "It’s macabre. How could they build that way? The old buildings resisted more. Many architects are reviewing this now.”

Lorca, which was already struck by a 4.6 magnitude quake in 2005, lies in an area of seismic activity and the Cofrentes nuclear plant in Valencia is about 125 miles to the north. Political parties and environmental groups have already demanded the plant be shut down as a precaution. It's one of the country's largest nuclear plants.

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