Saturday, May 30, 2015

Experiencing The Nepal Earthquake

There was a tremor almost every time I began to type a few lines for this article. And I would defer the work for another day!

Dharma Adhikari
After a meal, on 25 April 2015, I was lying in bed and reading before I dozed off. Suddenly, I woke up with a start. Something was not right. The room on the second floor of our concrete building, in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, was acting strange.

“Earthquake, I have been telling you,” shouted my 12-year-old daughter, standing on the door. As I sprang up and rushed towards her, the shaking became violent. My first reaction was to gather her, my 17-year-old son and my nephew, glued to their laptops in the adjoining room, to safety.

It was Saturday, a school day off, and my wife was on her way to a relative in a neighboring town with our youngest son.

As the shaking continued intensely, I realized this was no ordinary earthquake. We held the door tightly, not speaking a word. I was gasping, and my mind went totally numb; empty of any thoughts or ideas. Now the building began to swing wider and felt like it could fall any moment. Those terrifying 45 seconds seemed like an eternity.

Then, just when things seemed to slow down a bit, I asked everyone to get out to safety, calmly and carefully. We rushed to a nearby open space where people from our neighborhood were pouring in. Cries of panic ran in the air.

I tried to contact my wife on her cellphone without success. The lines were already congested. The Internet was still working, and I managed to quickly post a tweet: biggest earthquake I have ever felt in life.

I realized how little time we have to notice the surroundings, even the shaky ground underneath our feet, when the lives of our loved ones are in risk. Past about three quarters of an hour, I received a call via landline from a relative 190 miles away. He said my wife and son were stranded on a highway, but safe.

The earth was still wobbly, and I felt like I was standing on a giant, flabby piece of meat. Slowly the gravity of the disaster sunk in. Army choppers began to hover above. The national radio quickly filled in the void for access to situational and actionable information. This was a maha bhukampa, a massive earthquake, it said, there were reports of deaths and destruction.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, Nepal's largest since 1934 and the worst disaster in memory for my generation, has drawn unprecedented world media attention to Nepal. The royal massacre of 2001, one of Associated Press’ top 10 global stories of that year, pales before this tragic headline.

The death toll has surpassed 8,000 people, cost billions of dollars worth of infrastructure, with around 500,000 homes lost or damaged and 2 million people displaced. It has directly affected more than 8 million people, the most vulnerable being from rural, remote mountain villages.

The timing of this disaster couldn’t have been worse. The country has been racked by political instability and an endless feud over a federalist constitution since a decade-long violent civil war with Maoist rebels ended in 2006. Without economic opportunities at home, tens of thousands of youths have left for foreign shores to work as migrant workers, leaving behind women, children and the elderly. Moreover, the impending monsoon downpours, and with them floods and landslides, will bring more hardships to the survivors without adequate shelters.

For five days, I huddled up with my family in a makeshift tent, with hundreds of others. Aftershocks have become insanely frequent, more than 150 so far, according to the Nepal Seismological Department. The massive 7.3-magnitude aftershock of May 12 has exacerbated loss, suffering and anxiety, further complicating the rescue and recovery process. We are back in the tent. There was a tremor almost every time I began to type a few lines for this article. And I would defer the work for another day!

The quake killed close to 1,700 residents in the Kathmandu Valley. It severely destroyed many old buildings, some high rises and three of the seven UNESCO world heritage sites of historical, architectural value. Many other buildings have been partially damaged. Fortunately, the city with its many narrow streets and haphazard constructions, often violating building codes, remains intact. This defies every prediction of total destruction and at least 40,000 casualties here. The 7.0-magnitude quake in Haiti killed more than 300,000. Increasing efforts in preparedness and building retrofitting during the last decade may have saved many lives.

As we followed the news, the scale of the catastrophe became more apparent. Entire mud and stone homes were decimated in many surrounding hill districts. The quake had hit the poor hard and spared the many rich people living in concrete buildings. The poor in the villages suffered more human casualties, and they were still waiting for relief materials one week after the quake, mainly because of the government’s slow response and difficult mountain terrain.

The humanitarian outpouring has been tremendous. More than five dozen countries, including India, China, USA, UK and Japan, have joined the relief and rescue missions or made donations. Although Nepal's government has been criticized for its inefficiency and poor coordination, the country’s police and the armed forces have earned high marks for their professionalism and heroism in rescue and relief works.

We see an impressive wave of spontaneous volunteerism among the youth and civilians. I was preparing to leave the city, but had to stay back for my elder son, who joined a group to help quake victims, because, as he says, “How can we leave when there are so many people who need help?”

A large number of individuals and groups, uncompromising in their positive outlook, have leveraged the power of social media and organized and mobilized themselves in rescue, relief and fundraising. This is a noteworthy shift from the traditional mentality in which a disaster like this is viewed as nothing but "an act of God," or simply bad luck — there is nothing that can be done about it.

Unwilling to be mere witnesses to government inertia in many areas of public services, and social apathy, these do-gooders are flinging into action. They are beginning to ask questions about issues that are within human control, such as planning and managing disasters effectively and minimizing their impact. Another quake can strike any time, because Nepal, where the Indian and Eurasian plates collide, is a seismically active zone.

A key priority for Nepalis now is to deliver the relief and reconstruction benefits to those who need them the most, and to ensure we do not become another Haiti, in which donations slip into operational expenses of non-governmental organizations or other unseen costs.

The news media have an important role in this, and Nepal’s vocal press have raised such questions. The radio stations and newspapers, some of them operating from makeshift tents, away from their cracked buildings, have done a decent job in informing the public about the latest developments and providing actionable information, such as by dispelling rumors of another major quake, or an impending epidemic outbreak.

Television channels and some news portals could have been more sensitive to the needs of traumatized victims. The Indian channels appeared jingoistic and voyeuristic in their coverage while western media often showed obsession with the Everest angle rather than focusing on the real tragedy in the middle hills.

Here in Nepal, this story is going to be with us for a long time to come. But Nepal cannot afford to be out of international sight. Donors’ pledges often turn out to be empty, but the country urgently needs an estimated $10 billion in reconstruction. In the immediate, people in the hardest hit areas need relief support and emergency shelters.

I was lucky. My daughter was home to alert me that day. The earthquake destroyed as many as 5,000 school buildings. Coming as it did on a school holiday it spared thousands of daughters and sons. To send these kids back to school, Nepal needs to rebuild.

The generous Mizzou community can make a difference. Please consider donating to a global charity. But make sure that your contribution ends up with those that need the most.

The Columbia Missourian, 30 May 2015 


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