A series of tremors hit the Croatian capital Zagreb in the early morning hours of Sunday March 22, which left at least 27 wounded, one in critical condition, and widespread damage to old buildings in the old town.
The epicenter was recorded 7 km north of Zagreb with a magnitude 5.3 of the Richter scale.
During the shaking, debris from the facades and slabs of the tiles fell to the ground, crushing cars. The inhabitants immediately left their homes for fear of aftershocks.
Rumors that another stronger earthquake was imminent fueled panic among the population. But in the two days after the first earthquake, nothing happened. Some 60 small shocks were recorded in the Zagreb area, the last one to hit grade 3.2 on the Richter scale on the night of March 23. No other damage from these small aftershocks was reported before March 23.
The earthquake occurred at a truly unfortunate time as authorities had recently imposed drastic measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
The measures include closing all non-essential businesses, banning all public gatherings including religious ceremonies, and closing all land borders. Authorities are also asking people to stay home as much as possible.
“Now panic is not our ally,” Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovíc said during Sunday's press conference that was broadcast by Al Jazeera on Facebook.
Authorities advised citizens, who had left their homes awaiting aftershocks, to keep their distance from each other and to fight the natural urge to curl up or gather in groups.
At the conference, after the president, Croatia's main seismologist Ines Ivančić spoke, saying it is impossible to predict whether there will be other earthquakes or not. He said that the possibility of a replica cannot be ruled out and that it could occur in hours, days or weeks.
Those statements confirmed a message from the Seismological Service of the University of Zagreb, led by Mrs. Ivančić, which was public on March 22 in the morning:
Potrese ne možemo prognozirati, bilo kakve obavijesti da slijedi snažniji potres nisu točne! Postoji vjerojatnost za jači potres, ali je izrazito mala. Možemo očekivati naknadne slabije potrese. Nemamo struje i radimo sve što možemo da damo pravodobne i točne informacije
– Seizmološka služba HR (@seizmo_hr) March 22, 2020
We cannot predict earthquakes and any information that a stronger earthquake is imminent is not true! The probability of a stronger tremor exists, but it is very small. In addition we can expect weaker tremors. We do not have electricity in our office and we do our best to provide accurate and timely information.
The authorities indicated that they will monitor the situation, based on a scientific evaluation and that they will make recommendations on how to proceed. They reinforced warnings against panic, which has proven to be damaging in similar recent situations in the Balkan region.
Most of the damage occurred to the oldest buildings, which abound in Zagreb, as the city had largely escaped the devastation caused by war and earthquakes that other Balkan capitals experienced during the tumultuous 20th century. The last earthquake of similar magnitude to hit the city was 140 years ago, the great Zagreb earthquake of 1880.
In the same press conference on March 22, the mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandíc, said that currently 80% of the population lives in buildings made of reinforced concrete, which are considered safe for earthquakes of up to a certain magnitude. He advised these citizens to return home and practice self-isolation to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
The remaining 20% of citizens who live in buildings or houses built before the 1960s remain at risk. Authorities have dispatched teams of specialists to assess whether those residents can return home safely.
A maximum of 1,500 people are provided accommodation and meals in a student dormitory at the University of Zagreb, and about 60 citizens, whose houses were deemed unsafe, spent the night there.
The material damage is considerable. One of the towers of the emblematic Zagreb Cathedral, built at the end of the 13th century, has suffered damage as much of the city's infrastructure, there are areas that do not have access to electricity, water or heating.
The city's gas factory asked citizens to close their valves to minimize the risk of natural gas explosions from perforated pipes.
Some of these old and damaged buildings house public institutions, even hospitals. The images of mothers evacuated with their children on the sidewalk in front of the maternity ward of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology went viral on the Balkan internet. The victims were promptly transferred to other hospitals.
Petrova bolnica rodilište pic.twitter.com/GALjpbCQHF
– kmario (@kmario) March 22, 2020
Petrova Hospital maternity ward (street).
Initially, some media reported that a 15-year-old boy had died from the injuries, and a health official in charge of the Institute of Emergency Medicine was mentioned, but the director of the Zagreb Children's Hospital, Goran Roíc, specified that the report was inaccurate.
He said that the victim was actually a girl and that she had not died but remained in critical condition. According to her parents, an object dropped during the earthquake hit her on the head.
The Croatian Army, the Red Cross, and other volunteers were promptly dispatched to help the population in the affected areas, who were also suffering from the cold. Europe has experienced a sudden drop in temperatures, which brought snow across much of the Balkans.
Interventni timovi Crvenoga kriza obilaze gradjane u uzem i sirem centru Zagreba i dicele deke. Ako vidite da nekome treba pomoc, javite nam, a pomozite i vi ako vidite da netko treba. #ZagrebEarthquake pic.twitter.com/8as32EkGY0
– Hrvatski Crveni križ (@crvenikriz_hr) March 22, 2020
Red Cross intervention teams visit citizens in the center of Zagreb, the historic center and neighboring areas, distribute blankets. If you see someone who needs help, please call us, and don't hesitate to help on the spot yourself.
The government of neighboring Slovenia was the first to offer assistance, followed by representatives of the European Union.
Slovenian authorities were also the first to announce that the earthquake had not affected the Krško Nuclear Power Plant located near the border with Croatia, and about 50 km from Zagreb and the epicenter of the earthquake.