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News / Life

The Nepal Earthquake Is Not Over

Vancouver anthropologist documents lingering effects of disaster

By Don Messerschmidt, for The Columbian
Published: August 30, 2015, 6:00am
13 Photos
Alfonso Lyons
Urban ruins left in the aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, and the hundreds of aftershocks that followed.
Alfonso Lyons Urban ruins left in the aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, and the hundreds of aftershocks that followed. Photo Gallery

Whatever happened to the follow-up news about Kathmandu, Nepal? Remember the magnitude-7.8 earthquake. … Perhaps a few donation dollars can be spared by all to help those poor people to survive.

–A recent letter to The Columbian

The view from the bluff where I stood in Nepal a few weeks ago was one of utter devastation.

Towns and villages up and down the Daraundi River valley were reduced to rubble. Scattered across the hillsides amongst the ruins were bright splashes of color: blue, red, orange and yellow, the hundreds of tarps and tents set up as temporary shelters. Overhead, monsoon clouds obscured the usual grand view of Himalayan peaks, while behind me the day’s storm was building up to the inevitable drenching rain.

On that day, I had sought a vantage point from which to see the extent of the damage at the epicenter of the magnitude-7.8 earthquake of April 25. I was there with a team of volunteers and workers from the Gorkha Foundation, a Nepalese non-profit. Our goal was to work with the locals to begin rebuilding some of the schools destroyed in the quake. I was also there to write about the earthquake and its aftermath, to keep the story alive.

&#8226; Messerschmidt plans to return to Nepal at his own expense in September-October to help continue the Foundation's school building program and to further document earthquake recovery. Anyone interested in supporting his return trip can email <a href="mailto:dmesserschmidt@gmail.com">dmesserschmidt@gmail.com</a>. He posts Nepal earthquake news at <a href="http://www.facebook.com/don.messerschmidt.5">www.facebook.com/don.messerschmidt.5.</a>.

Over 8,000 people died in the Nepal quake. Several hundred more are still missing, and nearly 18,000 were injured. It is estimated that a half million houses and other buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged. Outside of Kathmandu, in the rural districts most affected by the quake, most public service buildings such as health posts, schools, and government offices were destroyed. In Gorkha District alone, 80 percent of the 498 government schools were reduced to rubble, and most of those left standing were badly damaged, making it impossible to run classes. Teaching supplies, classroom furniture, equipment and learning materials were also destroyed.

The initial shock came just before noon on Saturday, April 25, a public holiday. It lasted 55 seconds, an eternity when the earth shakes so wildly that you can’t stand up. Fortunately, the schools were empty and most families were at home and outside in the warm weather. Spring showers were expected later in the day. If the earthquake had occurred on any other day of the week, or at night, the death toll would have been many times higher.

And now, four months on, the Ghorka Earthquake is still not over. Aftershocks continue to rattle Nepal. At the current rate of more than three aftershocks per day, there have been almost 400 tremors so far. The Nepal National Seismological Center keeps track of all aftershocks over magnitude-4, listing them daily by size and location on the web at http://seismonepal.gov.np.

Despite the horrendous destruction of buildings and all the personal trauma and tragedies, recovery is underway, though food and shelter remain serious problems. Rice, lentils and other staples are still being distributed. And for the duration of the monsoon, which ends in late September, the inhabitants of whole villages will remain temporarily encamped out in the rain under tarps, tents and corrugated galvanized iron roofing materials held up by bamboo poles. The more permanent rebuilding of the devastated communities in the mountain districts will take years. And the expense of it will far surpass Nepal’s financial capabilities as one of the world’s poorest nations.

Last house standing

One day, a companion and I visited Birauta, a small farming community of mixed ethnicity. In villages near the epicenter in the Gorkha hills, most of the houses were either destroyed or so severely damaged that they are unlivable. Remarkably, however, one is still standing in Birauta, safe and sound. It was built by Govinda Gurung, a retired Gurkha army pensioner. He is one of many ex-soldiers who returned home to live. He is also a respected local leader, as ward chairman and member of the school board.

Compared to most houses in the village, made traditionally of stone and mud mortar, Govinda’s is more modern, constructed of concrete, painted white. It is new and comfortable, and it was strong enough to have survived what no other structures around it withstood. Today, it stands out amid a wasteland of rubble. In future, the villagers need to build more houses like it.

But, Govinda doesn’t sleep in his comfortable home. Instead, he is doing what everyone else in Birauta does. All across the hillside are temporary shelters, mostly tarps draped over wooden frames, set out on terraces at a safe distance from the collapsed roofs and fallen walls of ruined homes. One of those tarps is Govinda’s. It’s where he, too, sleeps each night.

“Why?” we asked. Why doesn’t he go home to sleep? Why does he choose a muddy floor and leeches over his spotlessly clean home?

What the Gorkha Foundation has accomplished:

Since April 25

Distributed emergency relief supplies to earthquake affected villages:

o More than 15,000 lbs of food (rice, lentils, wheat, & other).

o 16,000 tarps.

o 1,520 blankets.

o 150 tents.

o 175 pounds of medical supplies.

o Candles, flashlights & solar lamps.

Subsidized four nonprofit organizations in Gorkha: (1.3 million rupees ($13,250).



More supplies delivered to hundreds of families in seriously affected villages:

o More than 1,000 more tarps & tents.

o Sleeping bags to 200 families.

o Food & cooking utensils to 250 families.

o CGI roofing to 250 families.

o Temporary learning centers (classroom shelters) set up in three villages' schools.

Began building 13 classrooms at a Lower Secondary School (classes 1-10) as a model for school replacement.

His answer reveals a great deal about his character, about the sort of leader he is, and about empathy and selflessness. “It wouldn’t look right for me to sleep at home when all my neighbors are out there in the open,” he quietly told us. And when the monsoon is over, he has promised to help them find the resources to build new and safer houses.

Nepal safe to visit

I am frequently asked if it is safe to go to Nepal as a tourist or for trekking. The answer is a qualified yes.

The national tourism authorities are confidently encouraging visits to the safest urban and rural destinations. It is best to sign up with a reputable tour agency, and stick to secure destinations and trekking routes. Two of the most popular treks, to Mount Everest Base Camp and around the Annapurna Himal, have been declared safe. Tourist hotels have all been checked and only those that pass inspection are allowed to book guests. Most hotels survived the shake-up with little or no damage.

Nonetheless, caution is always advised when visiting Nepal. The Himalayas are prone to cataclysmic landslides and floods even without aftershocks and cloudbursts to trigger them.

For foreigners to visit the most devastated rural areas, however, is not recommended. The Nepal government discourages it. The only exceptions might be volunteers who know Nepal well (have been there before), are culturally attuned (who, as they say, “eat rice with their fingers” like the Nepalese), who speak some Nepali, and who are keen on helping the locals rebuild.

It is not easy to reach the Gorkha epicenter or any of the other highly affected locales. Many of the roads are bad, and the trails in the hills are typically steep, strenuous and under some conditions treacherous. Going there puts a burden on the locals, since room and board are hard to find so far from the more usual tourist destinations. Furthermore, roaming about nonchalantly snapping photos of the devastation and the suffering smacks of insensitive “disaster tourism.”

In Kathmandu, however, it is common to see locals and foreign visitors touring and photographing the ancient monuments and temples, many of which now lie in ruins. The unsafe areas around them are clearly marked with police barricades. The great palace squares at the heart of old Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, the three main cities of Kathmandu Valley, were among the worst affected. Over 700 sacred and historical sites were seriously damaged or destroyed by the quake. Their salvageable parts, the bricks, wooden struts, intricately carved doors and windows, and religious artifacts, some hundreds of years old, have been dug out of the rubble and carefully stored for use when rebuilding commences after the rains are over.

Elsewhere in the Kathmandu Valley, many poorly constructed buildings collapsed and have either been torn down or await the dangerous job of dismantling. A few can still be seen tilted at perilous angles in crowded urban neighborhoods. It is wise to avoid getting too close to these scenes of wreckage.

Ways to assist

The first answer is to contribute money. Considerably more funding will be needed to help Nepal recover over the months and years to come. There are numerous international and Nepal-based non-profits that have provided short-term emergency aid and are now giving long-term assistance to recovery and rehabilitation. By searching the Internet for “aid agencies to the Nepal earthquake,” you’ll find lists of mostly large international organizations. With some, however, it is not always easy to know whether your donation actually goes to Nepal nor how it is used.

If you want to donate to smaller, locally-based Nepalese organizations, adjust your web search to “small local aid agencies in Nepal.” There are also useful lists under Media Relations on the Gorkha Foundation website at http://gorkhafoundation.org, and at http://bit.ly/1LXkCBg.

While for the immediate future the Gorkha Foundation is concentrating on rebuilding schools in Gorkha District, it also runs a popular microcredit program for over 2,000 village women and related livestock and small-scale agriculture programs. And it helps sustain a community hospital and several outlying medical centers.

Small Nepal-based organizations such as the Gorkha Foundation are particularly sensitive to local needs and conditions. They know the lay of the land, and are known and respected by the local people. They are also adept at negotiating the bureaucracy. Their staff and volunteers typically reflect the remarkably positive spirit that is so often expressed by the Nepalese. The Gorkha Foundation and others like it consider it important to work with the local people in development and recovery, not merely for them nor simply giving things to them. Local participation is encouraged, which in turn raises self-esteem and instills feelings of ‘ownership’ in both the process and the products of recovery.

'Rebuilding Gorkha, One School at a Time'

Beginning in October (post-monsoon)

18 more schools under consideration for rebuilding in these categories:

o Higher Secondary (classes 1-12).

o Secondary (1-10).

o Lower Secondary (1-8) and primary schools (1-5).

This is a testing time for Nepal, and it will be so for a long time to come. Yet, despite what I saw at the epicenter — horrendous devastation and unspeakable tragedy — the Nepalese spirit remains strong and resilient. Rebuilding has begun, brick by brick and stone by stone, with lots of concrete, rebar, metal trusses and CGI roofing to make it far more safe and secure.

Nepal will rise.

About the writer: Don Messerschmidt is a Nepali-speaking anthropologist, a rural development consultant, and author. He is semi-retired and lives in Vancouver with his wife Kareen. In the 1960s, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a Nepalese village barely 20 miles from the April earthquake epicenter. He remains involved in Nepal’s development as a member of the board of advisors to the Nepalese, all-volunteer, nonprofit Gorkha Foundation. Donations are welcome at http://gorkhafoundation.org.