Global Affairs

Croatia Hit by Strong Earthquake

On Tuesday, Croatia was struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, killing at least 7. The town of Petrinja, 50km South of Zagreb, was the worst hit, with its mayor describing the earthquake as “one huge catastrophe”. This is an area of Croatia which is already suffering economically.

Houses near the epicentre were left in ruins and people were pulled alive from the rubble. Many are now displaced, having spent the first night in tents, cars or a nearby military barracks in fear of further aftershocks. Reported among those dead is a 12-year-old girl

Tuesday’s earthquake is the worst to hit Croatia on modern record. Shaking was felt in surrounding Bosnia, Serbia, Austria and as far away as Italy. Signal was down in other regions of Croatia for hours following the earthquake. Slovenia’s nuclear power plant was shut down as a precaution. 

A smaller earthquake was felt on Monday in the same area. After Tuesday’s earthquake, powerful aftershocks continued into Wednesday, adding more debris to the streets, even as people scourged the rubble for those missing from the previous day.

In the capital, Zagreb, tiles fell from roofs and scared crowds gathered in the streets. Chaos ensued at one Zagreb hospital on Tuesday as people evacuated the building, with patients left sitting outside, on chairs and under blankets. The city is only just starting to rebuild from the destruction of the powerful earthquake that hit the city back in March, which damaged 25,000 buildings.

Ministers have announced the army is being sent to help the relief effort and to clear the rubble. “The political party that’s in power now are using this as an opportunity to gain [support] from those suffering from this earthquake, because ‘they’re helping now’”, comments Laura Ivošević, one Croatian student. There is a sentiment among many that the government has abandoned parts of Croatia like Petrinja for years, investing little in the country’s rural areas, which are increasingly becoming underpopulated.

Some of Croatia’s cities have cancelled their New Year’s Eve programmes in order to donate the funds to emergency aid for Petrinja’s residents. Citizens in nearby areas are housing those who have lost their homes and people have donated food and clothes. Charities are helping to coordinate the rescue and aid response. This civilian-led response has been a source of hope for some, with communities coming together in solidarity to help those affected. 

Rebuilding, however, will take much longer. A law detailing who will pay for reconstruction after Zagreb’s March earthquake took six months to be approved by Croatia’s parliament. By that time, many homeowners had already started rebuilding efforts using money from their own pockets.

The country’s president Zoran Milanovic has announced that rebuilding after Tuesday’s earthquake will come from EU funds. A visit from the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management on Wednesday says immediate assistance has already been pledged by many countries, and that the reconstruction plan will focus on mitigating future earthquake impacts and investment for rural areas.

“We can’t say ‘Good morning,’ It is not good,” Petrinja’s mayor told Croatian Radio. Petrinja is a much less prosperous town than the coastal tourist hubs visited by Brits. Badly damaged during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the town’s traditional economy, based on agriculture and industry, was devastated. Thirty years on and the region’s economy remains underdeveloped. This is all occurring during a year when COVID-19 has hit Croatia heavily, disproportionately affecting the poorest. This earthquake’s impact on an already hurting community will feel especially cruel just a few days before the New Year. 2021 will bring with it a slow recovery.

Croatia and the wider Balkan region is prone to earthquakes. In spite of this, abuilding boom after the transition to capitalism saw little regard for building safety regulations across the ex-Yugoslav block. Experts have long warned that this has left millions vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. Rebuilding more robustly should now be a priority for the Croatian government. However, the villages and towns affected have ageing populations. Young people have moved out in search of jobs elsewhere, and so the question will be whether these communities will remain long enough to see the reconstruction. With the country’s mass vaccination programme a few days into its rollout, politicians have many crucial issues on their agenda.