A History of Murcian Floods, Droughts and Earthquakes

Illustration of Alfonso XII rescuing inhabitants of the 1879 floods in Alcantarilla (Juan Comba Garcia 1852 - 1924)
Illustration of Alfonso XII rescuing inhabitants of the 1879 floods in Alcantarilla (Juan Comba Garcia 1852 – 1924)

Virtually everyone in Murcia and the world as a whole, is aware of the impact of global warming. However, long before the problems brought about by carbon emissions into the atmosphere became common knowledge, Murcia experienced a cataclysm of naturally caused disasters (stretching back to at least the mid-17th Century) which were reported upon across the length and breadth of Europe. 

Many modern Murcian residents are aware of, and have experienced, the region’s propensity for serious flooding and inundations. This goes back a long way – the inundations of 1651, for example, had disastrous consequences for the people of Murcia. The Murcian floods of 1651 were unequalled in their ferocity, until the Segura and Mundo rivers burst their banks on the evening of 14th October 1879. In the resultant flooding, waters rose a full 8 metres above their usual levels. The population of Murcia City at the time was about 90,000 and roughly 19,000 people lived in Lorca. According to the British Freeman’s Journal of October 1879, over 40,000 people in Murcia City were made homeless by the floods and 60 factories were destroyed, along with perhaps 1000 houses. Telegraph communications were utterly destroyed everywhere, within a radius of 40 miles, along with several roads, bridges and railway tracks. The Governor of Murcia stated that over 500 bodies had been recovered from various locations around Murcia City and 60 corpses were also recovered at Lorca. News of the Murcian disaster was soon reported in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain. King Alphonso XII was quick to respond, racing to Cartagena by train in order to visit people and sympathise with those who had lost relatives and homes in the massive floods. In Britain, numerous donations were made to a disaster fund launched by the Bank of Spain and British press reports estimated that over £2,000,000 in damages had been caused by the disastrous flooding of the Segura and Mundo rivers (equivalent to over £276,000,000 in 2022).

River Segura, Blanca, Murcia 2020 (Serdnaserdna)
River Segura, Blanca, Murcia 2020 (Serdnaserdna)

As well as coping with major flooding, the region of Murcia has also had to deal with the problems caused by severe drought. Modern Murcian residents have certainly experienced hot, dry summers and in August 2006, the Irish Independent newspaper reported on the severe drought of that year, when Murcian and other Spanish reservoirs recorded record lows in water levels. Even so, these modern problems of lack of rain and hot, dry summers pale into insignificance when the Murcian droughts of previous centuries are taken into consideration. By the end of January 1850, for instance, whole districts of Murcia had been converted into arid, depopulated deserts by lack of water. In fact, no rain had fallen for 5 years. Only in May 1850, after a 5-year drought, was there a deluge of rain in many parts of Murcia. Many young children had never experienced rain before and showed some terror at the sight and sound of rain falling from the skies. Villagers rushed into churches and grabbed prized religious icons, which were then paraded around various localities in order to celebrate the return of rainfall. Although droughts lasting 5 years were thankfully very uncommon, droughts which lasted for months rather than years were far more common and could also cause severe problems. The disastrous floods of October 1879 were preceded by a drought lasting 3-4 months which destroyed vital crops and led to many Murcians emigrating to north Africa (particularly Algeria). During 1861, there was a severe Murcian drought which affected all areas other than lands watered by the Segura River. The wheat crop was destroyed by a drought in 1875 and British regional newspapers reported upon a severe Murcian drought during summer 1905.

2011 Lorca earthquake intensity map (United States Geological Survey)
2011 Lorca earthquake intensity map (United States Geological Survey)

In addition to droughts and inundations, earthquakes – or at least earth tremors – have been reasonably common occurrences in Murcia for at least 200 years. On 21st March 1829, at 6.15pm, a major earthquake simultaneously hit both Madrid and parts of Murcia. Every building in Murcia City was damaged to some degree and a bridge over the River Segura was destroyed. There were also an unknown number of fatalities in the Murcia City locality. Cartagena was also hit badly: The La Sevieta quarter of the city was destroyed entirely, St Fulgencia was reduced to rubble and many nearby towns and villages vanished between the rumbling tectonic plates of the area. Since the major earthquake of 1829, tremors have occurred on a regular basis. There were 11 such earth tremors at Archena on the afternoon of 16th January 1883 and 22 at Ceuti on the following day. Some injuries, but no fatalities, occurred as a result of these two incidents.

Lorca castle, damaged in the 2011 earthquake
Lorca castle, damaged in the 2011 earthquake

Further notable tremors were recorded at Murcia City in 1902, which damaged the cathedral and a number of other nearby buildings, and on 13th March 1941, a brief quake occurred at various locations in Murcia, causing much panic but no injuries. Periodic minor tremors have remained a feature of Murcian life right into the 21st Century, though the last significant earthquake (measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale) took place in 2011 and had the town of Lorca right at its epicentre. Lorca Castle tower was damaged, along with two churches and there were sadly nine fatalities and dozens of injuries caused by this last and most recent of local earthquakes.

Adrian & Dawn Leyland Bridge, August 2022