Eyewitnesses to earthquake

Eyewitnesses to earthquake

A former Brattleboro resident gives a firsthand account of the recent catastrophe in Nepal

My wife Mansalu and I were on the ninth day of our two-week trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal when the earthquake hit. We had been walking through the Manang valley on the northern side of the Annapurnas with friends Dan, Timon, and Masha, and a porter, Bhim Kulung.

At an altitude of about 14,500 feet, we were a half hour from a small group of lodges situated at the base of the climb over Thorung La, one of the world's highest mountain passes.

We paused at a lonely tea shop on this Saturday, and then Timon and Masha pressed on towards the lodge at the base of the pass while the rest of us opted for tea and snacks, as there was plenty of time for a break before lunch.

When we continued after our break, we passed a sign - “Landslide area/step gently” - the only such warning we saw during two weeks of trekking.

And so it was that we were in a particularly bad spot when the earthquake hit.

Our first indication of imminent danger was a couple of football-sized rocks hurtling through the air across the trail ahead of us in an area that clearly had experienced rock fall in the past, judging from the collection in the snow below.

We scanned the slope above us and then crossed the narrow chute where the rocks had funneled through. Next, we had to cross a wider rock fall zone. Dan and Bhim scanned the slope above and crossed first. By the time Manaslu and I were ready to cross, Bhim was standing on the other side of the rock fall zone with a better view of the slope above, motioning us to wait.

Several rocks came flying down the slope at high speed. Manaslu and I crouched close to the uphill side of the slope and waited for the signal from Bhim.

After a minute or so of falling rocks, there was a pause, and we were able to cross in the sort of crouch/run that you see in war movies.

As we were resting on the other side (keep in mind that at this altitude, a 50-yard dash will have you gasping for breath for much longer than at sea level), we felt the ground shaking under our feet.

That's when we realized that we were experiencing an earthquake.

We quickly got up, scanned the slopes above us again, and moved farther from the rock fall area, to a place where the trail cut into the slope and formed a dirt wall on the uphill side, where we again crouched down for protection.

A small group of trekkers had just passed us, heading downhill towards the rock fall zone, and when Manaslu called out to them to come back, they quickly retreated to share our bit of dirt wall against the slope.

Bhim and a young man from the other group stood up, and continued to scan the slopes above for threats. A few rocks fell diagonally across the slope toward us, and everyone pressed close to the wall. The rocks passed overhead, and we returned to sheltering and scanning the slope.

Then the earthquake passed, the dust began to settle, and we took stock of the situation.

* * *

As the worst of the rock fall sections were behind us, we moved ahead as quickly as we could without triggering exhaustion and altitude sickness. We identified a couple of stops along the last 20 minutes to the lodge that looked less risky than other areas, and we stopped there for a few breaths.

When we arrived at the lodge, we learned that, according to CNN, there had been a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, with the epicenter in Gorkha, just 60 miles away.

However, as we learned later, the energy of the quake was largely directed to the east of the epicenter, and away from us. There were unprecedented avalanches in the Langtang region and even at Everest Base Camp, which is 130 miles from the epicenter.

You could say that we were lucky to come out of that experience unscathed. Or you could say we were rather unlucky to have been in that situation in the first place.

* * *

We had barely taken off our packs outside the lodge when the first aftershock sent everyone scrambling outside. The aftershock knocked out the wi-fi and all communication channels with the outside world, except radio. Even a satellite phone in the care of the two Himalayan Rescue Association doctors staying at the lodge stopped working due to a server failure on the ground somewhere in Kathmandu.

Needless to say, Manaslu was very worried about how the quake affected Kathmandu and her family and friends all over Nepal. And we all felt the weight of our unfulfilled responsibility to let our loved ones know that we were OK.

We decided to stay an extra day in the lodge at the base of the pass. This would not only allow our bodies to further adjust to the higher altitude, but it would also give us a chance to use the communication facilities at the lodge if they were restored, and it would reduce the risk of an aftershock occurring while climbing over the pass, as the chance of an aftershock occurring gradually diminishes over time.

Kantipur FM provided news broadcasts every hour, sprinkled with static and inappropriately interspersed with commercials for laundry detergent and instant noodles. The news was entirely in Nepali, and the best reception was in the staff room, so Manaslu visited there regularly with the porters and the staff from the lodge.

The news was mostly about Kathmandu, and it didn't sound good.

The lodge owner, Kumar, sent one of his staff on foot back to Manang to see how things were there and to let his family know that we were all OK. We had to accept the things we couldn't change and manage with what we had - each other, food and shelter, and time.

We were worried, but we were happy to be alive.

* * *

The next day began with low clouds, fog, and occasional snow flurries, reinforcing our decision to stay an extra day at the lodge. After lunch, as the weather was clearing, we heard that the satellite phone was working, and the doctors generously shared it with the Nepalis, including Manaslu, so they could check on their families.

Each person had the opportunity for a one-minute phone call, and Manaslu was able to reach her brother Bikash, who told her that everyone in the extended family was OK. She told him that we were all OK too, and that message went out when Bikash passed on our news to Manaslu's sister, Hema, who broadcast it to many of our family and friends.

Later that afternoon, the doctors consulted with their head office and decided to descend to Manang and make their way east toward areas that were likely affected by the earthquake. Wi-fi began working at the lodge, and we managed to send out a couple of text messages before it stopped working again a few minutes later.

* * *

Two days later, we arrived in Jomsom, where we encountered our first graphic evidence of the earthquake.

A strong aftershock had struck the day before, squeezing the two ends of a bridge together, causing it to buckle. Nearby, an older stone building completely collapsed, but fortunately no one was injured. And across town, a high-end hotel where Manaslu and I stayed after our wedding 11 years ago was badly damaged.

In Jomsom, we had planned to stay in the comfortable Om's Home Lodge, owned by a family friend, but given the recent aftershock, we opted instead for a seedy one-story lodge with no taller buildings nearby.

Our scheduled flight to Pokhara departed the next morning. The 15-minute flight brought us from the arid climate of the Tibetan plateau to the humid, green, pre-monsoon tropics.

Pokhara was largely unaffected by the earthquake. We decided it was best to stay out of the way and “shelter in place,” so we stayed three days in Pokhara before returning to Kathmandu.

* * *

Manaslu's brothers have both gotten involved with grassroots assistance, collecting donations and materials and sending truckloads directly to the villages north of Kathmandu.

Our sister-in-law, Lali, was actually on vacation here from Hong Kong when the quake hit and, since she works for the Red Cross, she just went right to work. She left home at the same time this morning with Manaslu, but Lali is on a mission to Gorkha, to the northwest, where the epicenter was recorded, while Manaslu was sent by the Red Cross to the northeast, where the reports of damage are the worst.

We donated to a local ad-hoc grassroots group based in Kathmandu which is putting together health and sanitation kits for distribution to families in affected areas. The kit includes water purification tablets, soap, and some basic medicines, all for just 200 rupees ($2 U.S.) per kit.

We also gave money directly to people who lost their homes. On the second day after the earthquake, when the doctors at the lodge allowed Nepalis to use their satellite phone to contact their families, three young men who worked at the lodge learned that their homes in Gorkha had been destroyed. They were badly shaken, but they packed their bags and left immediately.

So when we paid our bill for our stay at the lodge, we simply doubled the amount and asked that the tip be given to the staff who needed it the most. Dan, Timon, and Masha contributed along with us.

* * *

Manaslu and I are joining forces with a local organization aptly named COMMITTED (COMmunity Members InTeresTED), run by two trusted friends. We need your help. The area where they work is located south of Langtang Valley, in the district of Sindhupalchowk, which suffered the highest death toll of all the affected districts.

Jayjeev Hada, the director of COMMITTED, says that right now they need nine solar panel chargers to serve approximately 800 households. The infrastructure for mobile phones leapfrogged past landlines in rural Nepal, which means that almost no one has a backup landline when the mobile phone stops working.

Our challenge is to raise $3,420 to install these solar chargers, which cost approximately $380 each, including installation. They include a battery which enables between 80-90 mobile phones to charge overnight. The solar panels are available in Kathmandu and can be shipped immediately, as soon as the roads are cleared of debris.

Electricity has only recently been restored to outlying areas within Kathmandu Valley, so it is hard to guess how long it will take to restore electric service to Thangpalkot VDC. It will likely take weeks or months.

In times of disruption and disaster, keeping track of loved ones and being able to make emergency calls is of utmost importance. With local electric service completely out indefinitely and as the tremors of aftershocks continue, people are in dire need of having a phone that works.

* * *

Kathmandu is not as bad as you might think from the news. And the damage in the rural areas may actually be underreported.

In Kathmandu, by our own estimate, roughly 99 percent of the houses are without visible damage in the neighborhoods we have been through. Even Thamel, an old neighborhood with narrow streets, is in pretty good shape.

Cafés, hotels, and stores selling handicrafts and trekking gear were open for business a week after the earthquake. There are a few relatively small clusters of collapsed buildings and crumbled monuments in the old city centers of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, which are all within Kathmandu Valley, but we haven't seen these places in person.

What is perhaps of longer-term concern in the Valley is the large number of buildings that were more subtly damaged by the earthquake.

One of our cousins moved into a new house a few years ago on the south side of the Valley. It is a modern building, four stories tall, constructed in the same style as all the other new concrete buildings in Nepal - reinforced concrete columns and beams, concrete slabs, and walls filled in with brick. After the earthquake, there were extensive cracks throughout the house, so her family packed a few essentials and left immediately.

Another example: my barber is originally from Rajasthan, India, but he has been living and working in Kathmandu for the past 30 years. He told me that he had to move out of his one-room apartment across the street from his shop because he was concerned about the cracks in the building. He has been sleeping on the floor of the barber shop at night, which is barely big enough to lie down in.

Nepalis are also quick to point out that many of the new residential towers (10 or more stories tall) were badly damaged during the earthquake. The extent of the damage in all of these buildings, new and old, towers, houses, and commercial buildings, will need to be assessed and a plan of action for each determined.

Perhaps some of them, though they may not look dramatically damaged, will need to be torn down and replaced. Perhaps others can be repaired and reoccupied within an acceptable standard of safety.

A recent estimate by the Red Cross is 500,000 houses destroyed and 250,000 houses damaged, nationwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated 285,000 houses destroyed, tens of thousands damaged, and 3 million people displaced.

The Kathmandu-based newspapers are already speculating about a housing shortage in the city, even though several hundred thousand people have left the city, either to help rebuild friends' and family's homes in the countryside or to just get away to a safer location in India or farther abroad.

The city actually functions better now than before the earthquake: there is less traffic, and - remarkably - there is a 24-hour supply of electricity. (Usually there is “load shedding” where power is available in a particular location for only a portion of the day).

One can only speculate on the short- and long-term impacts of the damage on real estate, banking, tourism, and the country's economy as a whole.

* * *

Initially, media coverage focused on Kathmandu Valley, presumably because it was easier to cover, being closer to the international airport and with abundant transportation options, even right after the earthquake. Roads to the villages to the north were probably blocked by landslides.

However, a week later, we would have expected media attention to shift more decisively to the rural areas north of the city, where the damage is greatest, resources for rebuilding are less abundant, and access is more difficult, further hampering the relief and rebuilding process

That, however, has not been the case.

Certainly, the loss of major temples in the historic heart of the three cities in the Valley has understandably generated repeated news stories. But that doesn't explain most of the coverage priorities. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the wealthiest and best-connected people affected by the earthquake are in Kathmandu.

In any case, it seems clear that the need is greatest in the rural areas, especially Gorkha, Rasuwa, Dhading, Nuwakot, and Sindhupalchowk. The tabulations of lost lives, injuries and destruction in these areas will likely continue to climb, as government and relief workers are still getting established there.

* * *

Not unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, the earthquake here has revealed the weaknesses of the government.

Nepal's army appears to have functioned well, offering all kinds of assistance, but political leaders have been AWOL, and when they have made an appearance, they have been particularly tone deaf.

Political parties have been squabbling publicly over how to distribute relief materials. Customs officials have repeatedly demanded a 12-percent tax on humanitarian materials coming into the country, and inspections have slowed delivery as well.

Nepalis may well turn their frustration at their failed government into a positive change in the not-too-distant future.

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