Guardamar, or how to deal with earthquakes and mobile dunes

Guardamar, or how to deal with earthquakes and mobile dunes
Guardamar del Segura changed its original location after suffering the effects of the Torrevieja Earthquake.

There are different Phoenician, Iberian, Roman and Islamic settlements in different parts of the municipality of Guardamar del Segura, as well as on the hill on which, once, the castle and the old citadel were built. This location was abandoned after being devastated during a series of earthquakes that occurred in 1829. The first three decades of the 19th century were marked by a high seismicity that affected, above all, the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula and, more specifically, the Governorate of Orihuela. Thanks to the field work carried out by the engineer José Agustín de Larramendi, due to the strong earthquake of March 21, 1829, we can know that, previously, there were earthquakes of similar magnitude in the years 1802, 1823 and 1828, as well as hundreds of smaller replicas that, taken together, would be part of a series of earthquakes, especially those that occurred between September 1828 and April 1829.

Such was the seismic activity of the area that, on the fatal day of March 21, 1829, many of the houses and other buildings were already seriously damaged. Different researchers estimate that the magnitude of this earthquake should have been around 6.6 on the Richter scale. But Guardamar del Segura, which until then was built in the walled citadel located north of the castle (attached to this) and, in front of it (outside the walls), on top of the hill, resisted that day for, two days later, the March 23, to be finally devastated by another earthquake that would affect, mainly, this population and San Fulgencio.

Larramendi said in his reports that in Guardamar had died eight neighbors because of the earthquakes, out of a total of 389. Almoradí was the town that suffered more casualties, a place where the tall buildings collapsed in its narrow streets, crushing the neighbors that were there. The same engineer was in charge of writing the projects of redevelopment of the villages that had been devastated and, thus, determined that the new nucleus should be erected between the hill of the castle and the coast. The new plant was characterized, above all, by having wider streets and houses on one floor, which would be built with different improvements, compared to the previous ones, to avoid roofs falling easily. In this way, Larramendi fixed a series of norms that would determine the image of Guardamar, and of other towns, with the purpose of to avoid great flaws, in case that future earthquakes happened. But, perhaps, at a general level, their standards have not been taken into account.

Already in its new location Guardamar was, again, threatened by nature itself, although in this case it was possible to act in advance to avoid greater evils. It was at the end of the 19th century, when the incessant advance of the dunes began to bury different agricultural fields, as well as some houses of the municipality. On this occasion, forestry engineer Francisco Mira y Botella took charge of the matter and, in this regard, determined to plant thousands of pines, palms, eucalyptus and numerous plants on the dunes. The works were carried out during the first years of the 20th century and, finally, the roots of the different trees and plants managed to stop the advance of the dunes.

Guardamar was rebuilt once and saved from being buried. A news item, published in the press in 2016, reported on a study on seismic vulnerability in the area, qualifying Torrevieja as the population with the highest risk, in which about 30% of its buildings would be damaged by an earthquake of intensity VII or greater. In addition, Crevillente, Elche and Orihuela would suffer similar damages, according to this study. Experts estimate that the seismic return period is 500 years, although it could happen at any time.


Header image: Ruins of Guardamar castle and, at the foot, forest engineer Ricardo Codorniu. Photograph taken by Francisco Mira (1902).

These and other interesting facts are collected in the book Paseos con historia por la costa de Alicante, already available in bookstores.