News – Full Year Since the Zagreb Earthquake

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Croatia owes its beauty to the powerful forces of nature. But every now and then, those forces come to collect their debt. We all hoped we wouldn’t meet those forces in our lifetimes, but boy were we wrong.

Last year was tough, I think we can all agree on that. These days, more and more people are even finding good sides to 2020. But being there, taking it one day at a time, the uncertainty, the fear, the changes, the impossibility to plan anything till the last day, the getting-used-to all that…. it’s incredible how, at the same time, things have turned upside down overnight and haven’t really changed much after all.

Dealing with 2020 was hard enough. Yet, there were places on this Earth where all Hell broke loose. As you know, I happen to live in one of those places – divine Croatia.

The year 2020 has qualified for future Croatian history books, and it’s not for lockdowns and pandemics. It’s because of two significant earthquakes that have shaken the country to the core.

Have you ever been in a big earthquake? I used to get this question a lot from my guests on my Secret Zagreb tours when I used to tell stories about historical tremors that have left deep marks in the past.

Some shared their own experience and it was always both fascinating and scary to listen about it. Because I was aware something like that could happen in Zagreb. And because it felt like the history of my hometown is marked by earthquakes, yet the people today can’t truly relate to that.

One of my guests told me about the Loma Prieta earthquake. He was in San Francisco at the time, and when the building started swinging – endlessly, he actually lost consciousness and woke up when everything was over.

That particular testimonial of his got stuck deep with me and I thought about it so many times – is an earthquake really that scary that you can just – faint?! That sounded crazy.

I’ve felt a share of tiny quakes in my lifetime, a moderate one in 1990, and was perfectly aware a bigger one could happen anytime. I remember each of those moments. In 1990, I used to live in one of the apartments in the city center. It was an impressive 100-year-old building with huge rooms. I was in my room playing with my synthesizer when the ground started shaking. By then, I already developed an impulse to look at the chandelier to make sure I’m feeling it. My grandma came running from a different room (it was one of those oversized historical apartments so it took her a while to get to me), and she got me out to an open square where I was bored to death for the next couple of hours. Her explanations of why do we have to stay out were vivid enough that I remained one of the few people in the city, I dare to say, who developed the fear and awe of earthquakes.

I even run a tour Sleeping Dragon and Other Legends inspired by the 1880 Zagreb earthquake. Believe it or not, for many local school children, that tour was the biggest preparation of the possibility of an earthquake.

From 1880 fast forward to 2020. It’s March 22, 6:24 in the morning, severe lockdown has only started a few days ago (just try to remember that panic feeling, stocking the toilet paper and people not daring to leave a house)…. when Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, started shaking. Two rather strong earthquakes within minutes, images of horror from the city center, reports of a 15-year-old victim, our iconic cathedral lost a part of the spire… The main shock was magnitude 5.5 which doesn’t seem that strong when you only look at the number, but it left such a damage in the old part of town and parts close to the epicenter, a damage that still hasn’t been repaired.

What I didn’t expect, in my previous thoughts about earthquakes, I never ever thought about the destruction and losses and what comes next. I was only thinking about moments of the earthquake. I guess everyone has some sort of irrational fear and mine was earthquake.

Only now I understand the earthquake is not the scary part. It’s what comes next.

Ok, the earthquake is scary, too. For me, the scariest part was a skeleton-like sound that the movements produced, as if my building was a living being about to crack.  

With social networks available, only now do I know what happens to common people after the earthquake and that all of the crazy reactions are normal. People leaving town in panic, driving around trying to find a place where nothing can fall on their heads, heading anywhere. People sleeping fully dressed weeks after the earthquake. Dozens of smaller earthquakes that drive you crazy. Two months later and the whole city knew exactly what’s the magnitude of each and every aftershock with an incredible accuracy – we were simply able to guess it. And a constant questionmark above your head: was this the main one or was it just the foreshock? Can your home endure more?

Of course, people come first, and thousands of people still haven’t moved back into their Zagreb homes because they are not safe anymore. However, it is hard to explain the feeling when your city is hurt like that. I guess that, in situations like these, there’s not a single shadow of a doubt left, that our hometowns are living beings with tissue and blood vessels, and it can be torn apart just like any of us.

Another thing we’ve learned this year is that time cures all wounds and does it fast. Nine months later, those who haven’t been directly affected, forgot the earthquake ever happened. Life went on and on surface, you couldn’t really spot the marks of the earthquake if you didn’t pay attention.

Until December 29. The end-of-the-year season of hope and rebirth brought unimaginable destruction to the region around the cities of Petrinja, Glina and Sisak. That earthquake hit my home stronger than the Zagreb one. It felt like my home was swinging for a minute. I haven’t been living in that huge historical apartment for a while now, I’m now in a tiny one at the 14th floor – which is much safer, I guess, but much more experiential.

I knew instantly that this didn’t happen in Zagreb and that somewhere else, a true tragedy has occurred. It took half an hour to find out what exactly happened because the lines and internet went down, but my guts were right.

At 12:19 a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck the region around Petrinja.

Have you ever experienced an earthquake? Does it scare you when you’re making plans to visit a country?

I thought I was prepared, but I didn’t know at all what was coming.It’s like labor, no matter how much you read about it, no one warns you about so many things that follow. This episode is just a little contribution to raising awareness upfront if such dangers exist in our environment.

Moreover, the region that was the epicenter of the 6.2 earthquake is a definition of the underrated and overlooked Croatia – off the radar of a average tourist and full of diverse tangible and intangible heritage. They are working hard to preserve them and present them in a careful and meaningful way.

So much of their rich cultural heritage was destroyed, so many organisations left homeless. Just as an example, Petrinja’s Tourism Board  has literally lost their office while the creative Banovina Interpretation Center , that was in its full bloom, is damaged and not safe to use.

And finally, Croatia still needs help to recover. I am aware that it feels like we’re on a safe distance with a full year since the Zagreb earthquake and almost 3 months since the Petrinja one. But, as I said, Zagreb hasn’t even recovered from the 5.5 earthquake in March. Help is still needed in the region that was most severely struck only recently.       

If you are fond of Croatia, you can also do a little bit to help. The best way to help from far away, is by making a donation.

A trustworthy option with easy online solution for donations and payment is Solidarna Fundation. 

Please, consider making a donation if you can. Even a small contribution from those who can afford it at this moment will become a part of a significant amount.

The latest disaster in Petrinja woke up the best in people. Volunteers poured in the region and thought all of us the meaning of the word humanity. But it’s easy to loose focus and empathy weeks later and it’s especially moving to see people who still haven’t lost the impulse to help. That’s why I was absolutely amazed by a simple yet possibly transformative project House Hope by Andrea Pisac who runs an inspiring Facebook group Croatia Insider and a beautiful blog Croatia Honestly. I know Andrea personally and know how dedicated she is to her projects, and I have never witnessed her doing anything that doesn’t have a higher goal. So, if you who wish to make a donation towards a meaningful project that will help people, but also rely on local heritage, check out House Hope.

After all, if 2020 has thought us anything, it’s that there’s no uncertainty that can defeat hope because hope is what makes us human. That strange year was somewhat of a house hope in disguise.

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