May 14, 2015

in Nepal

Aftershock comes in many forms.

Kathmandu is a city turned inside out–thousands of people on the lawn of the convention center, tents on the golf course and in every open courtyard or square, recovered personal belongings piled in front of collapsed buildings, people squatting and cooking their daily meals in a field.

Even for a government well-known to be grossly corrupt, the government is shockingly self-enriching and ineffective in their disaster response. Customs officials intend to levy a hefty tax on relief supplies, so goods sit on the airport tarmac for days immediately following the disaster while arguments wage. The government hampers relief efforts by initially attempting to require all foreign relief funds be deposited in the “Prime Minister’s Relief Fund” under their control.

Startle responses are naturally heightened for some. They jump and scream at the slightest creak or quiver. Others are so desensitized that they hardly feel the continued aberrations.

Foreign relief workers pay $3000-$6000 per helicopter flight. They arrive in devastated and unreachable villages to complete “needs assessments” without carrying even a modicum of food or meds in the empty seats.

Other helicopters come searching for particular foreign tourists who are neither seriously injured nor in immediate danger but who have special evac insurance or good connections. The helis land and ask for the person they are looking for. They refuse to take critically injured and bleeding individuals to a medical center. They fly off as empty as they came.

Disaster tourists show up to “help” without knowing anything about the area, the need, or the people and without coordinating with local agencies, health posts, or district offices.

“Too many doctors” is a phrase I hear again and again when I reach Kathmandu. Foreign doctors everywhere, well-intentioned but often futile in their attempt to help. Engineers, however, are in short supply.

Kathmandu suppliers are entirely devoid of tents and tarps. None to be had now for far-away villages except those coming in on international flights or over the border from India. Maybe later in the week. Maybe later in the month. Maybe later in the year.

Foreign journalists are piled into a 5-star hotel, abustle with laptops and recording equipment and importance, drinking at the bar — a perhaps necessary but still unpleasant contrast to the Nepalis lying about under plastic sheeting, dejected and homeless .

Relief supplies are diverted and stockpiled or sold by unscrupulous businessmen.

The earth trembles day and night, sending fear through communities, keeping us awake, alert. Aftershocks reach up to 6.7 on the Richter scale, much like an earthquake in itself.

In many villages 85%-100% of homes are destroyed. In Kathmandu, 60% of historic buildings are damaged before the second quake. In eastern villages where perhaps only 50% of homes were damaged, the second earthquake makes 95% of homes uninhabitable.

INGOs meet, are briefed on the day, and are then asked to share information…but no one speaks. A local friend kicks them into gear: how about road conditions–which roads are passable and which are blocked? How are you going to distribute these supplies? They start to grasp what they might share and begin a discussion. One wonders if they have any idea of the logistics required for relief in this geography.

Whole village communities sit shell-shocked. Every home gone. What little they owned, gone. All gone.

Villages that have received no food or tents yet are angered by sanitation officials who show up to talk to people about building toilets.

Three separate people from a relief team phone their contact in Kathmandu within 20 minutes of each other to ask the same few questions–Where should we put the supplies? Can we leave them here by the road instead of carrying them uphill and putting them inside the property gate? Where should we set up our own tents? They are 3 traveling together in a 5-person team. They are not even communicating with each other, nor aware that piles of supplies left out by the road would easily be stolen overnight. How are they going to coordinate distribution?

800 schools are destroyed by the first earthquake. Schools are expected to resume mid-May, even without buildings.

Kathmandu is a town half-emptied. People have fled either to care for their village families or because their home in Kathmandu is demolished or because they are simply afraid to stay where there is no open space nearby to run to. Many businesses remain shuttered. Streets are eerily devoid of their usual traffic.

A second earthquake arrives after two weeks. Homes on every street are cracked or collapsed, families sit beneath tarps, in village rain, in city dust, in half-hearted persistence of living, wondering if they’ll survive the summer.

Aftershock comes in many forms. Will Nepal ever recover from all this?

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