Reflections on the Zagreb Earthquakes, 1 Month Later

By 24 April 2020

April 24, 2020 - A month after the Zagreb earthquakes of March 22, reflections of a Zagreb resident living with the new reality.

It's been more than a month since the terrible Zagreb earthquake that woke up the city early in the morning of the 22nd March. A month seems like a long time in a crisis, which is why you might think a lot has changed since and things started getting back to normal again. It’s true, some things changed. With dozens of smaller aftershocks, residents of Zagreb became true experts in guessing the exact magnitude of earthquakes. We crashed the Last Quake servers a few times, searching for its aftershocks reports. Just the other day, I thought it was nice to get to the point when I received more notifications from Rain Alert, on a sunny day, than from Last Quake. And then, on the 23rd of April, there was that rumbling sound again and a strong kick. This could be between 3 and 3.5, I thought. And it was true, everybody in the city guessed with ease - a 3.2 earthquake brought back the stress and all of the disturbing thoughts: shouldn’t this be over by now? Remember that year when a stronger one hit 15 days after a pretty big one? Is this still an aftershock… or god forbid a foreshock? I don’t think we’re never going back to normal!

I started off on a lighter note, but there’s nothing light about how we feel here in Zagreb. We might have gained new seismographic superskills since the 5.5. earthquake. Other than that, nothing has really changed. The city and its residents still haven’t received much help.

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A few days ago, Zagreb lost the top of the second cathedral spire. The southern one had already fallen during the earthquake. The northern one needed to go because of structural damage. This hurt us again. I’m perfectly aware the spire was dangerous and unsafe. However, I can’t fight the feeling - the moment they took it off, I felt a strange disappointment and I thought how they conveniently erased the damage. They flattened the scar and now you can’t even spot the wound. This will definitively help us forget faster.

People wonder what will happen with the cathedral, when do they plan to renovate it? Great question. It was painful for me as well to watch the top of the second spire being demolished. I’m not sure if I will ever forget the painful feeling of disbelief when I saw the first spire damaged in the earthquake from up close. However, now, a month since the earthquake, with dozens of unsafe schools and student residences, it seems to me there are even better questions out there. Such as, what’s the plan if Croatian students go back to their classrooms before the summer? The real question is, what would happen if Zagreb was struck by this exact same earthquake, without coronavirus lockdown to cover its true damage? Is there some kind of a plan for cases like these in our town, or in other Croatian regions that face the same danger? Without the coronavirus, our daily lives were supposed to continue by now. This is simply not possible for many. Thanks to social distancing, we can’t easily spot other people’s suffering and we simply can’t comprehend the real damage.

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In the beginning, there was a lot of talk about just how lucky we are the earthquake happened early in the morning, in the midst of lock-down… The moments of the earthquake are behind us. Today, I dare to think that, what seemed to be a lucky circumstance, turned out to be the worst of luck – for the very city. The incapability of the authorities still isn’t completely exposed. At the same time, the possibilities for corruption and mishandling the consequences are infinite. I wonder who’s the lucky one?

The magnitude of the earthquake was precisely enough to throw hundreds out of their homes, to cause a terrible condition for many buildings, while at the same time, Zagreb is still pretty on the outside. You could walk around certain streets and barely notice that anything happened if you didn’t know about the earthquake. So who’s the lucky one here? People inside these buildings who don’t know what’s more dangerous – to use the staircase or the elevator? The ones who count cracks in the walls instead of sheep before they go to sleep? Real lucky ones. Or the ones placed in student dormitories? Good for them.

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Right now, we can’t help but think for a second of a stronger earthquake that would cause all of us to lose our homes. But we just take a deep breath and try to think of something else. There’s a sense of bitterness and helplessness in the air. Art historians and architects are the only ones who still have the strength to try and influence the urgent renovation law. They keep warning about the fact the law doesn’t care about the city. And that it doesn’t even care about its people (the experts are conveniently being accused of putting pretty facades in front of human destinies).

It’s not comfortable to watch the demolition of a part of your cathedral spire. It’s not nice to spot a red sticker with the word “Unusable” on your own primary school. But to tell you the truth, watching the parts of the city fade is something we’re used to. In recent decades, we’ve lost so many parts of our lives through the neglectful actions of the city authorities. I’m not even going to try to explain, but all of the Zagrebers will understand how a single magnolia tree can be worth fighting for, and the desperate feeling when the fight is lost. At least, the top of the cathedral spire wasn’t taken away from us by someone of flesh and blood.

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Today, more than a month since the earthquake, that’s the scariest thing. For a moment or two, we feel like we can’t really preserve our city. It’s been slipping through our fingers for a long time now. And the earthquake… it didn’t expose the incompetence of the authorities or anything we didn’t already know. It didn’t destroy the town in its seconds of terror. Just like with the cathedral spire, it just scratched the surface. However, on that 22nd of March, the earthquake took away the safety of their own home for some people, and gave the tools to accelerate the fading of the city to others.

Many of us can’t stop thinking – what is more ethical? Is it the priority to give people a safe place to live in no matter the cost? Or should the real priority be careful renovation and the respect of heritage and the city’s identity? We torment ourselves with these thoughts and feel guilty no matter which side seems logical at a given moment. It’s good to feel a little guilty because we do carry a part of the blame. But, not all of it. It’s not completely true that we’ve been silent all these years. The residents and the experts expressed their opinion on many dubious decisions very clearly on many occasions. However, despite the public opinion and protests, changes have been made in an arrogant autocratic way.

At the same time, none of us was properly educated about the possibility of earthquakes, and the city didn’t educate or encourage its residents to include static reinforcement when renovating historical buildings. Not a single plan for renovation or taking care of people in the case of an earthquake was made, at least as far as we, the common people, are aware of. And by now, we should now. All we have is information where to gather in case of a truly devastating earthquake and what’s the alternate route in case our bridges collapse. Only some people have that information – those who have really tried to read the difficult-to-understand, impossible-to-notice posters placed in some of the town’s institutions. And what do we do after the earthquake? Not a single word about that. Who could even think that a month after the earthquake of moderate magnitude a part of our fellow residents will still be in student dormitories, and others will still not have the slightest idea of how should life look like in the city center in the following months or years? The truth is, we were unprepared. That’s the reason we managed to crash Last Quake over smaller aftershocks.

I will take a part of the blame for the magnolia tree. I will also accept a part of the blame for many other dubious decisions of the town council in recent years. But, even the slightest suggestion that the residents are to blame for a complete lack of competence shown by the city’s authorities for a completely expected event... I will not accept that. More than a month has passed, it’s time for us to stop having the useless feelings of disbelief and helplessness. We do have a right to expect that both the residents will be taken proper care of, and that each and every corner of the city will be respectfully renovated.

For more coverage of the Zagreb earthquakes, follow the dedicated TCN section.

Iva Silla is the owner of tour agency Secret Zagreb.