The death toll in the earthquake that struck Nepal last weekend has reached 6,000 people. Nearly 14,000 have been injured and there are many thousands still unaccounted for.
My colleagues in Nepal are still trying to reach the district of Gorkha, one of the worst hit areas near the epicentre of the earthquake, where we have been working for many years helping communities to challenge their poverty. There has been little news from here, except that around 400 people have reportedly died and 90% of the houses have been completely destroyed.
One of my UK colleagues, Mary Willcox, a Principal Energy Consultant at Practical Action Consulting, was in Kathmandu when it happened. Like most Practical Action staff, she is not a qualified, professional aid worker and so returned home this week. She recounts her experience:
I had stayed on after going out to Nepal to do a workshop on energy access in order to take a couple of weeks holiday, and was due to fly out on Saturday afternoon. I was in Thamel (the backpacker/shopping part of Kathmandu) at midday when the earthquake struck.
As if the ground had turned to liquid
Have you have ever been on a cable bridge - where as someone else treads on it, it shakes? It was as if the whole world was like that - as if the ground had turned to liquid.
I was pretty scared. I was in a narrow street, I didn't have a map and I didn't know exactly where I was. People were crouching in doorways to take cover and as soon as the quake was over we all ran to the nearest open space.
It was a pretty frightening few minutes, and I immediately decided that I could do without any more pashminas or other gifts to take back with me, and headed straight back, out of Thamel's narrow streets, to the hotel I'd been staying in on Durbar Marg.
On the way back to the hotel I saw a few walls and some electricity poles fallen into the road, and a couple of people with minor injuries, but nothing which gave me any idea of the real scale of destruction.
At the hotel, I found the rest of my party and other guests gathered in the parking area in front of the hotel, where we stayed for the next 5-6 hours.
Very little information
Through the afternoon there were aftershocks and news trickled in of some of the earthquake's effects (like the collapse of Bhimsen Tower), but still nothing which really gave a picture of what had happened. We didn't know where the epicentre was. There was very little information. We heard that the death toll was estimated to be hundreds at the end of the day so at that point in time the scale of the earthquake wasn't apparent. There was no internet access either. Everyone sent texts to family to let them know they were ok.
Aftershocks in the night
By 6pm, clearance came through from the government for people to go back into buildings. That allowed me to retrieve my luggage and passport from my room but the airport had been closed, so I stayed at the hotel overnight. The hotel (a substantial modern building) had suffered some damage but nothing catastrophic, though most of us chose to sleep outside around the pool. I don't think I'd have got much sleep if I'd stayed in my room. There were various aftershocks in the night and I was woken by a particularly big shock at around 5am.
The airport was chaotic
The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport which, by 7am, was already chaotic. The roads between the hotel and the airport were open and traffic had continued to flow throughout. Though there were a lot of people wandering around who had obviously slept on the roadside and other open areas, again there was no sign of wholesale destruction.
After 3 hours queueing I managed to get into the security area and from there into the check-in hall. By about 1pm I was checked onto a plane scheduled to leave for Delhi at 4pm, but then there was another significant aftershock, and though a few more flights left that afternoon, at about 7pm it was announced that my flight had been cancelled. By then aid had started coming in - mainly by the Indian Air Force, but I think there was also some from China.
I decided to stay in the airport to be at the front of the queue for check in the next morning - but so did lots of other people. By this point the airport was pretty squalid - food and water had pretty much run out and the loos weren't working (I think the system had been damaged in the earthquake). By 10am I'd checked in, and by 2pm I was on a flight to Delhi, where I managed to get my original flight booking back to the UK transferred to that night's flight, and I got back to Heathrow on Tuesday morning.
Living in fear
All in all, I suffered a few minutes of fear and a couple of days of inconvenience. That's nothing to what's facing people in Nepal now who have lost relatives, had homes and businesses destroyed, and are living in fear of another major earthquake. It's really brought home to me that the superficial visible damage is just the tip of the iceberg relative to the real long-term damage to the infrastructure of people's lives. Despite this, all the Nepali's I encountered were calm and courteous and anxious about the well-being of visitors, from the hotel staff who managed to serve all the hotel guests a hot meal on the evening of the earthquake, to the airport staff who were handling many times the usual number of passengers, combined with backlogs from cancelled flights, and conflicts between getting people out and aid in - a skeleton staff working 16 hour shifts was struggling to deal with this and they are the heroes for me in this story.
Help people rebuild their lives
I had a tiny glimpse of a horrible event, and have really no better picture of what has happened, and is likely to happen, than anyone else who has been following events on the media. It seems likely that it's going to get worse before it gets better - and that recovery is going to be a long haul not a quick fix. The first phase is obviously going to be focused on getting immediate help to people in the worst-hit areas, and it'll be after that that we may be able to help people rebuild their lives. Hopefully, as the picture becomes clearer, our colleagues in Nepal may be able to give us ideas on how we can best help.
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