With almost 20 days having passed since the Maha Bhukamp (Nepali for “Great Earthquake”), I realized a message to family and friends was long overdue. While writing down my thoughts Tuesday morning, I downloaded some data from Nepal’s National Seismological Centre to convince myself that we’re really in the clear. Other distractions arose and soon it was lunch time. The ICIMOD cafeteria runs out of food by 12:45, so that interrupted my writing one last time. I was taking the first bite from my plate of momos when the “second” Maha Bhukamp hit. Uggh. Duck, cover, hold, … Wait for the shaking to stop, go outside, watch colleagues frantically call their families and try in vain to contact mine, run up to my office to collect my laptop and unfinished work, go home.
The past 2 weeks have been a drawn-out lesson in disaster recovery on both a personal and institutional level. In brief, I experienced the following sequence of emotions after the earthquake:
- Feeling lucky that our family was not hurt, that our home was not damaged.
- Informing relatives and friends that we’re okay. Facebook was perfect for this, as ICIMOD’s backup power generator (along with email server) went down during the quake.
- Feeling numerous aftershocks – some real and others imagined. Debating whether to sleep inside or outside of our house; upstairs in our bedrooms or downstairs near an exit?
- Wondering how long it would be until water and power would be restored; whether we’d run out of food before the stores were restocked with supplies from outside Kathmandu.
- Quit waiting for the next aftershock and try to make ourselves useful to city residents who had lost their homes.
- Returning to ICIMOD 3 days after the earthquake to lead our office’s task force for immediate relief over the next 8 days. (see https://www.facebook.com/icimod for a summary of our efforts)
- Balancing the needs of our daily-wage support staff (e.g., custodial, security, cafeteria workers, drivers) who lost some belongings against their next-door neighbors who had lost everything
- Deciding whether to provide relief to a devastated village where our staff have close relatives or to one where ICIMOD has ongoing pilot projects and local partners in desperate need
- Pondering how one draws the line between earthquake relief and poverty relief. Due to daily rainstorms, some form of shelter (i.e., tarp, rope, blankets) was urgent for those who lost their homes; water purification and disinfectants seemed necessary for those in tarp-covered camps. But once the local stores reopened, were donations of food appropriate?
- Deciding to end ICIMOD’s immediate relief efforts and try to shift our focus back to ICIMOD’s regular work of improving the mountain environments and the livelihoods of mountain people (i.e., sustainable poverty alleviation)
- Oscillating between feelings of guilt for not providing more relief and righteousness for not having left the country with many other ExPats
- Feeling utterly incapable of focusing on any medium- or long-term tasks back at the office. The psychologists who came to counsel us kept using the term “Hyperalert” to describe our state of mind – i.e., poised to react to any stimulus, but not in a condition to think critically.
- Recognizing that we are physically okay, but emotionally fractured; and that, soon, our mental functions would return to normal.
- Plotting a time-series of the aftershock magnitudes, concluding that the worst is behind us and, then, experiencing another massive quake 2 days ago.
- Again, informing relatives and Facebook that we’re okay. Again, debating where to sleep. Again, experiencing large aftershocks through the night.
Thanks for all of your messages of concern and your prayers. Nita and I are moved by the outpouring of condolences and offers of help, and I regret that I did not write sooner. I know that the physical damage looks much worse from afar than it has been for us personally, because the TV and Internet show the worst hit places which are horrendous. In contrast, our neighborhood had very little damage and our friends are physically unharmed. All 250+ ICIMOD staff and their immediate families survived the Maha Bhukamp (only a few minor injuries were reported). Likewise, all children, staff, and families at our kids’ school and in our neighborhood are okay.
But while evacuating the office on Tuesday, one of my Nepali colleagues asked “Prakash, do you think we are cursed?” I’m sure this thought is going through the minds of many Nepalis right now. I don’t think the country or its people are cursed, but this natural disaster is certainly wearing everyone down. And here, I’m just talking about the millions (like me) who are uninjured and whose homes are intact!
Hopefully this gives everyone an idea of what we’re going through since the earthquake. Feel free to share this with your friends and family to offer another perspective, one that isn’t available through mass media. I look forward to meeting many of you in the USA during our visit in July!