My good friend James was visiting me in Bangkok on his way back from the UK to Myanmar, staying the weekend. We returned from a morning of vigorous (a euphemism for torturous) massage on the Saturday morning when a message popped up on my mobile phone asking if I was preparing to write a Situation Report. Thinking my colleague had lost her marbles I asked her had I missed something in the few hours I was out having massage and lunch.
Indeed, I had missed the Nepal earthquake and emails were arriving by the minute with updates of the situation in Kathmandu and the office there. I had travelled to Nepal a month previously to provide training on the communications aspect of an emergency to public information officers and to local journalists. There was never a more timely training, but it wasn’t sufficient.
The phone calls from the international journalists began in earnest . As the afternoon wore on it became more obvious that the situation on the ground was not good at all – I knew I would be returning to Kathmandu. I left the house for a few hours to have a meal with friends, all the time aware I would be packing bags at some stage.
Heading to Kathmandu
Another colleague called on Sunday morning to say if I dashed to the airport I’d make the flight, but I decided it was best to aim for the following morning and at least know that I had packed the necessities to last a few weeks if the situation was dire. Monday morning bright and early I took the taxi to the airport, meeting more than a few familiar faces queueing for the Thai Airways daily flight to Kathmandu TG319 departing at 10.30.
Part of me was dreading the flight –and as I arrived to the airport another colleague who travelled the day before texted to say he scored five hotel rooms. If the hotel was damaged then we could stay in the garden in our tents but at least would have access to a hot shower in the morning. Things were looking up. The flight took off and we were on our way to Kathmandu.
The time difference between Kathmandu and Bangkok is one hour 15 minutes, which confuses the life out of everybody. I’ve seen mathematicians taking their fingers to try and figure out the time difference with Nepal. One hour into the flight I duly set my watch to Kathmandu time and enjoyed what I thought was going to be the last bit of decent food for a while. It seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to get to our destination until I realized we were circling and circling and then circling some more. The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to Calcutta to refuel as there was a bit of a backlog in Kathmandu. Apparently there were 14 flights circling in the air. We arrived to Calcutta and I sent off a couple of emails apologizing for my delay to a meeting I was due to attend. In fairness we didn’t stay long on the ground in Calcutta and once more took off headed for Kathmandu.
People were walking up and down the aisles of the plane, talking to each other, reconnecting with others met on previous missions, swopping business cards. I began watching the flight path on the TV screen as it kept starting at 40 minutes and counting down to five minutes before it would start again at 40 minutes. We turned back to Calcutta, supposedly for the night where Thai Airways was to put us up in a hotel. When we arrived there were five other flights ahead of us and all the passengers had taken our rooms in the hotel!
In the row behind me there were some Eastern European medics, who, judging by their tshirts were responding to the disaster. The oldest member of the group began complaining about the flight, asking if they expected us to sleep on the plane and would they offer us a cup of water for a shower.
There are some people who should just never volunteer to respond to a disaster. What did he expect? We also had 70 passengers who were from the Japanese search and rescue team, travelling with their rescue dogs on the flight. I could only imagine their frustration. The Thai Airways pilot stayed in the air all day, trying to get us in to Kathmandu because he knew most people were on the flight as part of the response. Forget the fact that he went way over international standards for flying time, the man did his best to get us there and I pointed it out to the medic who complained. Once again we took to the air, returning to Bangkok to spend the night. We arrived back at 1 a.m.
Funny, the following morning, the row of seats that the four medics occupied the previous day, were empty. They just didn’t show up.
As we attempted once again to make our way to Kathmandu – everybody looked tired. We were all dressed in the same clothes but at least I had found a 7/11 store to pick up a spare deodorant.
A state of calamity
We got to work as soon as we landed. I was fortunate I knew the crew in the UN office in Kathmandu, so understanding how they work made my job easier.
There were many differences between this response and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just 18 months earlier and a few similarities as well. We have a highly competent Irish-Scot, Jamie McGoldrick the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal who is a former TV and radio producer and who knows the media, again making my job way easier. He’s articulate and sharp, unlike his cohort who was in charge during Haiyan. Media wouldn’t have been her forte.
It’s easier to respond to an emergency when it is an island country – you can just ship in the humanitarian aid. Nepal is landlocked and it has just one runway in its main airport, with an apron that can take just five planes at a time. Transporting goods from India through the road network was an alternative, but it didn’t solve the problem of transporting goods to the remote villages.
Kathmandu, what to do….
Kathmandu is as chaotic as any Asian capital city – it’s polluted and normally choked with traffic because of the small roads. On top of that every male driver thinks the horn on his car is somehow relevant or connected to his penis and he insists on honking his horn every five seconds, making it as noisy as every other Asian city I have ever visited. It can take five minutes to cross the road, dodging cars, bikes, busses and motorcycles. You need the agility of a prizefighter to weave and duck in order to avoid impact with the oncoming traffic. This time, when we drove in from the airport, Kathmandu was strangely empty – no traffic, no people and 90 per cent of the shops closed.
I expected to see something similar to Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake, as we drove through the city to the office, but it was surprisingly intact with little evidence of the earthquake. Buildings remained upright and Nepal wouldn’t be renowned for its excellence in building standards, so that was surprising. It didn’t take long to look behind the facades though and when I went out to some of the temporary shelters, I found thousands of people sleeping outdoors in parks, fearful to return home because of the aftershocks. The city had emptied as the migrant workers returned to their villages high in the Himalayas to ensure family members were okay.
The first time I visited Nepal we went left the office after work one evening looking for somewhere to eat. Durbar Square is a 20-minute walk from the office and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. I knew very little about Kathmandu so I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the square – palaces and places of worship all in one spot. There was a holiday atmosphere, yet few tourists. It was very much a place for locals, especially young people – hanging out sitting on the steps of the temples – the square had a romantic, magical atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to visit.
When the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, visited for three days in the aftermath of the disaster, part of her itinerary included a visit to Durbar Square which was unrecognizable. It was reduced to a pile of rubble where the military worked to clear the square, there was so much dust you could feel its grit in your mouth and in your lungs. At the best of times because Kathmandu is in a valley, like Kabul in Afghanistan, the pollution is trapped in the valley, leaving an acrid smell from the fumes that pour out of baldy maintained trucks and cars on the road.
Setting the wheels in motion
After a week in the office of the usual manic post-disaster response, I headed to Gorkha, (where the famous Gurkha army comes from). I went to see the devastation caused by the quake. It’s a four hour drive, through the most spectacular countryside and as an added bonus, the further the distance we drove from Kathmandu, the clearer the air.
Even the town of Gorkha, where the buildings looked as if they are naturally tilted, I was surprised to see so many standing. We called into the local administrative office where we met a young man Suedip who was working in Afghanistan when the earthquake happened. He worked for a non-government organisation when he heard the news and got on the first flight to return to his mother’s village to help out. He spoke with passion about the work they had already carried out and how they were trying to coordinate. They had distributed tarpaulins for people to have shelter, food and cooking utensils. In a country where the caste system delineates the high from the low caste, boundaries were coming down like buildings in an earthquake as neighbours who would normally never speak, helped each other out. If you wanted to look for a positive outcome of this terrible tragedy, then this was it.
We set up a coordination office there a few days earlier, so there was an office tent and a separate tent with camp beds. Nights were very cold and I felt guilty in my warm sleeping bag as most people slept outside without decent blankets. On the first night we slept in a field with no access to running water, so a bottle of water was used to wash. We had a porta-loo of sorts, but having a pee with 467 bluebottles, isn’t a healthy scenario. The following day we moved to a hotel and camped on its grounds, so we had access to a room with a shower.
I have a fear in these situations that I will literally be caught with my knickers around my ankles, sitting on a toilet when the next disaster happens, or in the middle of having a shower. None of the doors of the hotel would close properly, no matter how hard I tried. Kirsty, a colleague travelling with us from the NGO Map Action went for a shower the day following a fairly big aftershock and got locked in to the bathroom, where the door refused to close the previous day. She had to phone to another colleague to ‘rescue’ her.
Devastation in Gorkha
While my colleagues went off to set up the coordination structures for the response, I went with the driver Gyanu to the off-road areas to see what the damage was really like. Neither of us having visited the area before, I asked him to just ask somebody on the street where the best place was to see the destruction. He scored well. The first person he asked happened to be the local health inspector, Sharad Shrestha who knew everybody in the area and had no hesitation to jump into the car with us and to show us to areas where some of the damage was greatest.
Nepal is an agricultural country and because of the mountains, farmers have created steps into the side of the hills, to grow their crops – rice, corn and vegetables. Just a half hour drive outside Gorkha it was a very different reality. The terrain is challenging at the best of times and its people are tough, living so remote from the rest of the world, walking or using donkeys to transport goods to the village – they are a resilient, hardy people. However, the earthquake had utterly demolished houses built of mud while many of the animals, mainly water buffalo, fettered under shelters died, leaving farmers without a means to plant crops.
They were lucky in a sense – the earthquake happened coming up to midday on 25 April, a Saturday. Over 3,000 schools were destroyed – unbearable to think of if it was a school day. If the quake had occurred during the night, hundred of thousands of people would have lost their lives. On a regular Saturday, people were out and about in the fields working, reducing the death toll but leaving them without homes and sometimes livelihoods.
We parked the car and walked up to the villages to speak to people. One man I met showed me a photo of himself and his wife on the balcony of their home and stood on the rubble with the satellite dish sitting on the top, so I could take his photo. Even if there was a house left standing, people were so nervous they slept outside under tarpaulins. It was interesting to see just a solitary door standing while a building was completely demolished – something that stuck in my mind. We called up to the Nareshwar Health Clinic where Dev Nath Yogi was waiting to see the health inspector. The back wall of the clinic displayed a major crack and is about to fall down, so the ‘treatment room’ and pharmacy was a desk at the front of the building. Recovery from such devastation will take some time.
I returned to Kathmandu, after two days, leaving the remainder of the team behind to work on getting the aid out to those remote villages I had visited. I was happy to go back to my comfy hotel that didn’t look as if it was going to fall down. They were busy days, trying to advocate for the Nepali affected by the quake and raise the funds for the response.
We were located in the UN compound in Kathmandu, where most of the offices are fitted with an earthquake alarm. It’s not that you wouldn’t feel a major shock, but sometimes tremors can build into something bigger and you need to be aware that the tremor is starting, in order to ‘leg it’ out the door. One day while conducting a press briefing with mainly local journalists, the alarm sounded.. bong, pause….. bong pause… Everybody ignored it. I interrupted the briefing to point out that in fact it was indeed an earthquake alarm. When it went off again several minutes –there were fewer pauses between the bongs. It was the shortest press briefing in history and we made a good escape from the journalists and the quake by evacuating to a safe area.
I was frequently summoned to Jamie the Humanitarian Coordinator’s office for meetings and it was at one such meeting on Sunday afternoon when the alarm went off. Myself, Jamie and another colleague, Stine took to the stairs like three demented escapees fleeing from the unknown. Stine, a tall, fit, much younger woman led the pace and I was on her heels. I don’t think I have run as quickly as that in 20 years and once we reached the outside I gasped for breath after the dash.
With no proper space set up for the influx of surge staff, Leszek and I were sharing a desk. At lunchtime he went off looking for another colleague on the same floor, when the earthquake alarm went off. There was no pause this time; it was just a high-pitched screech of an alarm indicating that this was a serious quake. I fled from the desk, leaving everything behind and ran outside the area heading for the stairs. I passed the doorway leading to Jamie’s office, which is double the size of an average door and I spotted another colleague under the doorway holding on. Remembering the solitary doors that had remained standing in Gorkha, I jumped under the door. Soon we were about eight people all squeezed in. Stine, whose office was facing the door where we sheltered, came out of her office as if in slow motion; she was like an old woman with her arms stretched out, fingers splayed, trying to keep balance. Once she realized she wasn’t going to fit under the doorway, she retreated back to her office and under her desk for protection.
It was the longest 45 seconds of my entire life. I could feel my breath shortening in panic as I gulped for air. I didn’t want to die. I was told that the building was earthquake proof, but if something is shaken for such a long time, eventually even the strongest building will give and tumble down. We had experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake; the original quake was a 7.9, considerably stronger. As the alarm bells slowed, we rushed down the stairs out of the building and on to safe ground.
After an hour or so, Leszek made a dash to recover his laptop and also recovered my phone. I was reluctant to retrieve my laptop and it was at least five that evening before I took up the nerve to race upstairs and pick it up.
There had been several aftershocks that Leszek had felt during previous nights, enough to make him run outdoors. I was obviously too tired and slept through them all. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had earplugs to block out the noise. The crows go berserk when an earthquake occurs, waking up Leszek, while I slept peacefully on.
Back to the 12 May and the 7.3 magnitude quake and we stood outside the building waiting for the all- clear but in the space of 30 minutes there were another five aftershocks, one measuring six on the Reciter scale. After some time we headed to the tents that had been set up on the grounds, to do some work. The international media began calling so I got on with the job, setting up interviews.
I recovered my laptop before we left the office for the evening and returned to the hotel. Shops were once again closed as shop owners and staff went back home to their loved ones. As we walked down the street on the way to the hotel, old and young, men and women sat outside on the pavement, afraid to stay inside. Some of our own colleagues opted to sleep in tents in the hotel grounds. That evening, exhausted from the day’s events, I soon dozed off and slept with one foot on the floor.
I slept well until, what felt like a poltergeist banging my bed off a wall woke me up at 2.05 a.m. Jumping from the bed, I ran down the stairs. A number of other hotel guests followed – we waited outside as the crows went bananas for several minutes. Eventually we went back inside. An hour later, sleep eluding me, we had yet another aftershock; this time not as strong but still enough to be felt and just three other hotel guests and myself stood outside the building. The remaining idiots had decided it wasn’t worth it to take themselves out of bed and out of the way of danger leading me to believe that some people have shit for brains. One man came down the stairs and sat in the reception area, presumably as a safety precaution.
Logic obviously doesn’t come in to the equation for many. When I stood outside the hotel the first time shortly after the first aftershock I noticed the perimeter wall of the hotel had collapsed, presumably from the afternoon’s quake. A Swedish woman and her daughter were standing outside when I pointed out the collapsed wall. “We don’t know if it was the earthquake that caused the wall to fall,” said the woman. “What,” I asked, “do you think made it fall – somebody blowing it down?”
There was fun with hard work, stress and reward of a job well done. But perhaps the most memorably documented moment of the three weeks I spent in Nepal was during the visit of the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. She was meeting with the Prime Minister and I had organized a TV interview with Al Jazeera, who had a temporary studio set up at the site of the nine-story tower, which was a national monument and had collapsed, killing many. Markus my colleague who had led the mission was accompanying Amos along with her special assistant Manu (Emmanuel), on these official visits. I needed to ensure she would make it to the live panel interview. The following is a transcript of the texts we exchanged on that Saturday:
Me: Markus. The interview for Al Jazeera takes place in Dharara Square at 10.45. Orla.. There is an area where Valerie can prepare if she gets there early.
Markus: But she has the Indian Amb(assador) at 10.30!! If the program has changed, I need urgent advice. Please get back to me now.
Me: Give me five.
PHONE CONVERSATION IN THE MEANTIME
Markus: VA will need some stats on accomplishments over the past several days. How much has come in? Teams? Items? Some key snappy points on what has happened by 11.30 for Al-Jaz.
Me: On the case. Will get it to you and bring hard copy.
Markus: Good. Just to confirm that you also be at Durbar Square.
Me: See earlier message. Dharara Square. Where the big tower was.
Markus: Well copied. Yes. FYI VA will go back to PM so will be late for Al-Jaz.
Me: Straight to Al-Jaz after?
Markus: Yes. On the way to square. VA wants to do this quickly. Few questions.
Me: This is a live weekly show.
Markus: Where are you?
Me: Many gone for you… sorry Manu.
Me: Manu gone out to you.
Markus: You see us?
Me: Where are you?
Markus: Arrived at entrance to square. Same place as last visit.
Markus: We’re at the wrong location.
Photography by Orla Fagan. Click on pics to enlarge.
Until next time