Zagreb’s residents woke up on Sunday to the most powerful earthquake the city has seen in 140 years as they were still trying to get used to life under the harsh restrictions introduced to contain the COVID-19.
The initial quake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale, struck around 6:30 am and originated from several kilometres north of Zagreb. The last time the city experienced anything similar was in 1880.
Only a day before, gatherings of any kind were banned and all parks were sealed off due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Two weaker quakes followed within two hours, measured at 5.2 and 3.7 in magnitude, while smaller tremors continued throughout the day.
According to initial reports, many buildings in the city's historic centre have been severely damaged, including the Parliament building and the Zagreb Cathedral. The quake caused several fires and knocked out mobile networks in some areas. No fatalities have been reported, although an injured 15-year-old girl is reportedly in critical condition.
The quake is expected to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic.
Zagreb, which is home to about a fifth of the nation's 4 million population, accounts for nearly half of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.
On Sunday, Croatia reported 235 cases since the outbreak started, up by 29 from Saturday, putting its caseload on an exponential trajectory similar to other European countries. Latest figures released by health authorities say five people are currently in critical condition.
Local seismologists said more tremors and possibly new quakes can be expected to continue throughout the day and even the following weeks.
After the initial quake, Zagreb’s emergency services instructed residents to stay outdoors and away from any buildings as well as from each other to avoid contagion.
This led to scenes of petrified residents wearing surgical masks filling up parks standing at a distance from each other with nowhere to go and nothing to do except worry about new possible tremors. Meanwhile, sirens could be heard in the background.
Many also sought shelter in parked cars, while others could be seen packing up to leave the city.
All public transport and inter-city passenger services have been suspended earlier this week.
The city's largest maternity hospital at Petrova Street, housed in a historic turn-of-the-century building, was quickly evacuated.
An image that quickly went viral showed dozens of pregnant women and horrified mothers holding their babies after they spilt into the hospital yard, as doctors performed childbirths in parked emergency vehicles.
By noon, authorities set up several locations with tents and hot food for residents whose homes were badly damaged. The army was also called in to help with clearing up the debris, only days after they had set up tents to house patients in the expected spike of coronavirus cases.
"The army is already in Ilica Street (downtown) and is working on clearing up debris. Every resource that Croatia has will be put to use and coordinated. This is a double crisis, which hit Zagreb and the area around the city, the rest of the country is still primarily engaged in dealing with the coronavirus epidemic," Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said.