What does an earthquake feel like?

In light of the second, high magnitude earthquake to hit Nepal on May 12th, I have been conducting various interviews with the UK press in order to try and explain the situation from my perspective, show what I am working on and to promote VSO’s effort to contribute to the rebuilding of Nepal. The favourite question though is one of the most difficult; What does an earthquake feel like? I still owe several blog posts explaining more about what I have been up to but first I am going to attempt to answer this question. So, unlike my usual style this is more of an essay (and as my Dad previously noted – my first since I actively gave up all essay subjects as soon as possible at school…) So, it’s rough, but I hope you still enjoy reading;

It’s almost 3 weeks now since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal with devastating consequences. Having myself gone out and viewed some of the destroyed buildings in some of the villages around the Kathmandu valley, I cannot express enough how lucky we are that the earthquake hit around midday, on a Saturday, in spring. At midday, people were for the most part outside their homes or at least awake and alert. Being the one non-working day after a 6 day working week children were also at home rather than congregated in their school buildings which suffered considerable damage. Finally, being spring, heavy monsoon rains or hard frosts and snow fall were not present to make the lives of those now sleeping outdoors even tougher.

That’s where the luck, for a lot of people, just about runs out though. But there’s no need for me to state facts and figures of this devastating event – those are readily available from far more knowledgeable sources. I cannot even broadly answer the question “what does an earthquake feel like?” What I will try and answer now though is; “what does an earthquake feel like, for me?”

I have been living in Nepal since July 2014. I consider Nepal to be my home. I feel deeply connected and honour bound (in a positive way, I just can’t find the words…) to help the Nepali people to rebuild their amazing country in which I have been made so welcome. I have enjoyed countless visits to the stunning historical and religious monuments and temples now standing damaged or lying destroyed. I have experienced the deservedly world-famous wonderful warmth and hospitality of Nepali family homes and admired the endless rural landscapes dotted with picturesque villages. Those homes and villages and the people who depend on them for shelter & security are now the most affected and the most deserving of support as they struggle to come to terms with their losses and rebuild their lives.

So, how do I feel?

An earthquake is confusing, disorientating, terrifying. During the first one we couldn’t stand, we couldn’t walk. There was only just comprehension enough to crawl the few metres possible away from a large, nearby brick wall and to try and protect ourselves and each other from what might be coming our way.

Though the strength of the initial quake was obviously deeply powerful for anyone who felt it, as I was in an area where the buildings and structures, mostly, stayed standing we did not immediately comprehend the full extent of the impact. Once we had found a safe & comfortable open space we switched to monitoring the national and international news with growing horror. That for me is really how an earthquake feels – it’s seemingly never-ending. The aftershocks rumble on, the death toll rises, a picture of absolute devastation unfurls and you find yourself sitting, somewhat bewildered in the middle of it. Crossing the city late that afternoon to return home we saw for ourselves more of the damaged buildings, piles of rubble and already makeshift tent cities springing up. It was clear at that point that the true extent of the damage would take a long time to become fully apparent.

I believe how an earthquake feels is different for everyone who experiences it. Factors such as whether you’re already in an open space at the time of the quake or inside a building, whether you’re alone, with your family or in a crowd, whether you’re responsible for the safety of children, students or colleagues as well as yourself not to mention the level of destruction wrought directly around you and to your loved ones all have an impact. A person’s long term reaction to the earthquake and its impact is also very much dependent on the hours, days and weeks following the quake. What additional challenges and hardships are faced? How a person’s personality and subconscious coping mechanisms kick into gear to help them process and move forward?

Personally my brain stopped really functioning and still feels slightly foggy several weeks on. The functions of memory and attention span are also playing up. I had no appetite for days and found it difficult to sleep due mainly to being constantly high on adrenaline and fear of another quake. Others would express as very different reaction.

For weeks afterwards you no longer know what day of the week it is or the date. Those facts are irrelevant. What is carefully noted is how many hours and later days have passed since the quake.

There is an overwhelming and seemingly never-ending feeling of powerlessness in the face of an earthquake. You cannot predict, influence or control the behaviour of the earth beneath your feet. This previously stable foundation has now become uncertain and untrustworthy but also no less fundamental and unavoidable than before.

All this, even though I was extremely lucky and relatively unaffected. I can only begin to imagine what those poor people who lost loved ones, homes, security and more are feeling. It will take individuals, families, communities and the country as a whole a long time to fully recover from this catastrophic event. However, I have already witnessed and heard many further personal stories of the resilience and amazing spirit of the Nepali people and those who have chosen to support them. I therefore strongly believe that Nepal will be rebuilt stronger than ever.

What was I thinking?

I was offered the chance to evacuate by the British Embassy, through VSO, a few days after the initial quake. I instantly said no. I was sure in my heart that I wanted to stay although saying no to an evacuation was something I probably never thought I would say. Doubts about my decision were short-lived but they were definitely there – especially as the aftershocks rumbled on and the rumours ran rife of bigger quakes on their way plus supply shortages and the rise of disease epidemics.

What to do? How to stay safe? But also how to help without being a burden or a liability? I am not an experienced humanitarian aid worker. I am not a trained search & rescue professional. I am however already located in country with some local knowledge of language and customs. I was extremely lucky to be unaffected by the worst of the devastation. I have project management, coordination and communication experience and skills. I have my own home, network and resources so as not to be a burden to anyone. Surely there’s something I can do? I came to Nepal for two years to share my skills and experience to contribute in strengthening the Nepali nation. Though the skills and experience needed right now have changed slightly, the sentiment of my support has not. So I stayed.

A classic feeling after a traumatic experience (I have been learning) can be a feeling of guilt. I am not doing enough. I should be doing more. How can I be back in my home with food, water and power when I know others are still sleeping in the open, hungry and vulnerable, at risk from further quake and landslides? But I am doing what I can and I am not hampering anyone else’s efforts by getting in the way – especially better trained professionals or better suited local volunteers. So I work to coordinate, connect, communicate and clarify as best I can in my chosen area of shelter. I also plan to continue raising awareness of the needs and the reality beyond the initial bubble of media interest and even beyond the estimated 3 month humanitarian aid window. I am in for the long haul Nepal.

The aftermath – How does that feel?

People who were not here for the earthquake have to ask; How does the earthquake feel? What they really mean though is the exact moment when the main shake hits. As I mentioned before this moment was confusing, disorientating and terrifying. But it was also short-lived (although the reported 1 minute and 14 seconds of the original quake also felt like a lifetime.) There is a lot of advice as to how to act during an earthquake to stay as safe as possible. What no-one really prepares you for, and yet what is almost as essentially to survival, is what to do afterwards.

Once the initial shaking has stopped, you exit calmly and get to an open space. What then? What to do for the aftershocks? What to do for the first night? For the next 72 hours of official high risk? For the next week? When the next major quake hits just when you thought things were returning to ‘normal’? For the weeks, months and probably years it is going to take to rebuild Nepal?

In my neighbourhood, a few shops and markets were open even on the day of the quake. The power was restored within 36 hours which meant we could pump up our water from the underground source. As normalcy slowly resumed, attentions could move to trying to help others less fortunate, especially as that feeling of guilt started to grow.

What’s happening now?

After a few days I started helping out in various ways. Some of which I have already written about and there will be more to come. Also as a direct result of the earthquake, I have now temporarily transitioned into a new coordination role for VSO Nepal. As of May 10th I am working within the Government of Nepal specifically the Kathmandu ‘Office of the District Development Committee’ (DDC) as a coordinator for the district’s transition and permanent shelter efforts. The DDC team are responsible for compiling the official, verified data for the district in terms of deaths, injuries & numbers of houses fully & partially destroyed and will be responsible for coordinating roll out of the Government’s transition housing program which is still being worked out. In the 2011 census the Kathmandu District had a population of over 1,7 million and due to rapid urbanisation in the area this figure certainly currently stands higher.

The DDC team are coordinating data coming back from 11 municipalities, managing dispatch of civil engineers & volunteers to do rapid assessments of damaged buildings, generally supporting the newly established municipality offices (established only 3 months ago) and suggesting transition housing options to the CDO & central government etc. For the Kathmandu District relief efforts the team decided that the most urgent subject was transition housing so they have asked me to focus on exactly that. Even more specifically on helping them clarify and coordinate what other organisations are working in this area. I am therefore gathering information about what the major aid agencies and grass roots organisations are doing in transition shelter – for example by attending bi-weekly cross agency shelter cluster meetings and reviewing the content of independent crowd sourced mapping of volunteer activities etc for anything applicable to the Kathmandu District.

Since joining the relief effort, to contribute whatever small piece of the puzzle I could both initially from grass roots and now supporting the Government of Nepal, I have witnessed firsthand the amazing, overwhelming energy, enthusiasm, courage, hard work and entrepreneurship of countless Nepali volunteers. They are passionately determined to be part of the solution and as such are both awe-inspiring and incredibly motivating. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world right now. Though if the earth could kindly stop shaking for a while that would be appreciated…

Incredibly Thankful

I am thankful for being so lucky as to remain unharmed in my personal experience of this formidable natural disaster.

I am thankful to my guests who, unfortunately for them, were visiting me here in Nepal when the first quake hit. Together we remained calm, practical and supportive though despite having their 4 year old daughter with us increasing the levels of anxiety and concern for protection. I could not have asked for better earthquake buddies!

I am thankful to VSO and my long term partner organisation AEPC for acknowledging the need (and strong desire in me) to temporarily change the focus of my placement to help the relief efforts as best I can.

I am thankful to my family (to whom I fortunately could send a text within minutes of the initial quake to assure them I was okay, before the event even made the news…) They have been supportive of me throughout by for example never once questioning why I have decided to stay…

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14 comments

  1. Kirstin

    I had to cry reading your post…. I admire you and have the biggist possible respect for you, your decisions and actions!

  2. A+ for the essay Jess and off the scale for what you are all doing to help out there. Our thoughts are with you constantly and if you have anything we can do please let us know. We are doing what we can but like you feel guilty it is not enough. Take care, keep safe and keep up the amazing work!

  3. Great post Jess! Really interesting to hear your first hand experience. Do you mind if I share? x

  4. Jess what an inspiring blog this is and what an amazing resourceful and kind woman you are.I am so pleased that Nepal has someone like you to work for them.Keep up the good work and remember time for yourself in all of it.

  5. Marina

    Wow. You amaze me. Just remember to take care of yourself – like the airline insturctional videos always show, first put the oxygen mask on yourself and then help those around you (metaphorically speaking).

  6. Thanks everyone for your lovely, supportive comments. There’s already a lot more to write about just from today but first I need to process a little and perhaps sip a cold G&T…

  7. Pete Cosby

    Very touching and interesting to read. I have friend who just moved from London to Kathmandu and got in touch with him right after I saw news. We all need to do our little bit to help this amazing country!

  8. Robert Doughty

    Having been, we can understand your feelings for Nepal. Without being patronising your report is so atmospheric – keep up the good work. Bob and Wendy

  9. Lovely and sobering thoughts. It’s really great that you’re staying and contributing, for all the right reasons.
    Hope the aid effort is effective and sustained. Looking forward to hearing more updates.

  10. lucy

    Jessica,..you are doing a great job. Keep up. You are a world changer

  11. Em

    Never thought you’d do anything but stay and help Jess!

  12. Such an insight Thank you. (VSO Mongolia 2006)

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