Nepal is a beautiful land, made mostly of mountains caused by the tectonic continental drift of the Indo-Australian plate crushing up against the Eurasian plate. This pretty violent confluence started well before we were born, and, is apparently continuing today. While the Nepali people are slowly becoming educated about this phenomenon, and science is gaining ground, they still have very little idea of what causes … or what should be done in case of… an earthquake. This fact was very evident on Day 1, as we heard quite a few mutterings about angry gods from the townspeople, but only one person talked to us about plate tectonics.
Regardless of the lack of earthquake knowledge in Nepal, no one in our village in Lamjung, Nepal was killed, or severely injured due to the 7.8 quake. We want to thank the trainers, volunteers, and teachers around the world who have reached out to their communities and pushed the priority of awareness and instruction about emergency preparedness. What you do does save lives. And we want to thank the researchers who study these behemoth events looking for ways to predict them. You do make a difference.
In particular, our Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) friends have been on our minds since the earthquake. We attended a training they presented at a local primary school this year on Nepal’s Annual Earthquake Safety Day. VSO teaching Earthquake Preparedness, January 16th, 2015. We will always remember them standing in the yard of the school in front of lines of students, teaching the kids about, “Stop. Drop. And Cover!” in their beautiful British, Scottish, and Nepali voices. Little did any of us know that in just over a month, these children would be faced with their very first, very large earthquake.
Saturday, April 25th, 2015 – Earthquake, Day 1
Electricity was out. This was not unusual; we get a few hours of blackouts most days. This time, however, we had been without for over two days, so we figured something else was going on and hoped it would be rectified before we lost all of the battery life in our phones… but…
We were both propped up against the head board of our bed, reading, when an odd shaking jolted our awareness at 11:56 am . It came on softly, like feeling and hearing an approaching train … from a great distance, but quickly grew more powerful. We realized what was happening roughly at the same time.
We stared at each other, waiting for the shuddering to die down as it always does, or had done in our previous limited earthquake experience. But, it only took a few seconds to realize that this one was not dying down, but continuing to ramp up. Fast. We both sprang out of bed to weave and dance across the twisting room to brace ourselves in the bedroom doorway on the second story of our concrete home. The tremors sped up, and grew into an alarming, “Shik-A-Shik-A” metronome that seemed set to the warping of the door frame. We held onto the door frame and each other.
The quake still didn’t stop, and kept getting stronger. The shaking seemed to go on forever. We had time to think about and even talk about our next step, yelling at each other over the rumbling, rocking and crashing noise. “Should we try to run outside?” “What do we do if the floor falls away beneath our feet?” We had difficulty holding onto the door frame. The house seemed to have taken on the personality of the prized bucking bronco of a rodeo, attempting to toss our bodies from where we had wedged them.
We watched helplessly as Vee’s remaining half-cup of coffee spewed and splashed over more than a 4 ft radius. Items fell around us and the sound of large crashes outside reached us. Screaming filled the air and we heard people running in the streets. We continued to talk over options, while the house repeatedly bent and straightened over and over again all around us.
When the shaking finally lessened to the point we could move from the doorway, we shouted orders at each other as we grabbed our backpacks, phones, charger, and ran while our host family screamed our names outside. By the time we got to the stairs, the major shaking had abated, calming down to a vibrating rattle. We slid down the two flights of stairs, firmly holding the railing, and then bolted down the hallway for the outside.
It was blindingly bright outside. Most natural disasters are accompanied by dark or smoky skies, but it was sunny outside, and the only noticeable shaking now was caused by the adrenalin coursing through bodies. People were still screaming, and there were clouds of smoke or dust pouring from the neighbors’ courtyards, nearby alleyways and spaces where buildings stood just moments ago. Our host brother and sister were being shoved by passing panicked humans. But, they stood firmly in the middle of the street shouting for us; waiting for us to come out of the building. “We must go! We must go!”
Stew replied, “Go! Go!” while eyeballing the glass windows directly above.
We joined the crowd moving away from the bazaar, and eventually pulled out of the throng at the far side of the garden, perching on a small stone ledge to regroup. Stew told our host brother that we needed to stay away from tall buildings, glass, and steep slopes. Then he told him again about twenty more times while our host brother stared blankly into space, occasionally saying, “Yes, yes…”. Then we sat and stared at each other while more people came running from town.
Another tremor ran through the ground, causing everyone to run and scream harder as more dust plumed from our neighbor’s courtyard. We stood up moving to more open spaces, and Vee got tangled in wire that was jutting from the base of the ledge. When she fell, she sprained her wrist , and received a bad scrape on her knee that also later developed some pretty intense bruising, but considering the mass of bodies pushing past her, her wounds were mild . By the time Vee untangled and stood up, the quake was dying off. We, along with the people who had stopped to help us, staggered over near a neighbor’s single story snack shop at the edge of town, where several familiar faces had gathered. Everyone was talking very quickly in Nepali, we couldn’t begin to understand anything but,”…. bukampa… “ … earthquake and “DarAeko”….afraid.
We found a small space to sit on the internet-rich sunny side of the road, while we waited for the adrenalin to drain from our bodies. As we stared across the road at a circle of panicky Nepali quivering in the internet-poor shady side of the road, we lamented that we didn’t have sunscreen in our go bag, but refused to move to the shade until we figured out the best way to connect with our family, PC staff, and friends to let them know we were ok. Both of us had our phones in hand staring at them and trying different methods of connectivity. Stew’s phone quickly died, having finally run out of juice from the electric-less night. Some local calls appeared to be getting through, but not to anyone east of us, including the Peace Corps office and anyone in Kathmandu. Texts seemed to be going through, so we sent notifications to Peace Corps Duty Officer and our Lamjung district warden that we were safe. When we realized we were able to post on Facebook, we typed in a missive, letting social media know that we were in the earthquake, but we were safe.
When people realized that we had access to internet on our phone, they started to gather near us and ask, “How big?” We were getting reports from 5.0 to 9.0 magnitude. Having never been in an earthquake that size before, we had no idea which report was closer to the truth. General consensus was 7.5 online, but was quickly updated to 7.9 and later degraded to 7.8. A growing crowd of people gathered in front of us shouting questions:
“Why do you think God is angry?” “Why are the Gods mad?” “What caused the earthquake?” “Will there be any more earthquakes?” “Will there be bigger earthquakes?” “When can we go back inside?” “Are there earthquakes in America?” “Did America feel this earthquake, too?”
We answered the best we could. “Earthquakes usually happen with a big one, followed by a bunch of smaller ones, slowly tapering off, but not always, so we don’t know.” “No one can predict earthquakes, so we don’t know when or if another one will come.” “We don’t know when it will be safe to go back inside.” “Plate Techtonics caused the earthquake… PLATE… TECHT… oh, egad… Two big places rammed each other. This was how the mountains were made, through a bunch of earthquakes.”
“Seriously, we do not know when it will be safe to go inside. No…..we can’t even guess if it will be one hour, two hours or three hours. Yes…..we do hear your Bhaisi (water buffalo) mooing…..no, we don’t know if you should go milk her.”
“WE DON’T KNOW IF THERE WILL BE ANOTHER OR HOW BIG IT WILL BE . NO ONE DOES.”
We sat a bit longer, watching the rebar sticking from the tops of buildings occasionally start jiggling. Sometimes people would scream and run toward us from the storefront of the building across the street (the aforementioned shady side of the street), but as time went on, heat increased, and rumbling decreased, more and more folks wandered to the shade of the building, trying to get out of the sun.
The local police passed through at one point, checking on everyone and looking for the Peace Corps Volunteers. We noticed them working their way toward us, stopping to speak to groups of people along the way. We couldn’t tell what the conversations were about, but in each group, someone would eventually point our way and the entire group would turn to stare at us. When the police reached us, they asked to see Vee’s phone. They just wanted to see what we’d found on the internet about the earthquake. No one in the area seemed to have internet access on their phones……except us, so we were the popular kids for the day.
After a few hours, people started calming down. Both of us had gotten a lot of sun and were dehydrated – water bottles were forgotten up in the room –, and also, now both of our phones were completely dead. We decided to chance a trip to the room to gather some of the items we had removed from our ‘go bags’ in the past, including our back up batteries and solar charger.
Venturing into the room was pretty scary. Coffee was everywhere. Books scattered, pictures fallen from the walls and furniture moved. We grabbed our solar charger, hats, filled the water bottles and got the hell out. Bahini (host sister) stood out front the entire time, yelling at the top of her lungs for us to get out of the house, which was understandable……but annoying….to us and probably to everyone within hearing distance.
Note: When you create a go bag (emergency bag), we recommend it be completely separate from your other equipment and goods. Don’t fill it with things you need or use during your regular life. You don’t have the brain power or time to fill your go bag in the moment of an emergency … you just don’t.
We went back over to the neighbor’s store front and set Stew’s phone with the solar charger out. He immediately got a new drunk friend who kept asking in English if he liked earthquakes. We tried out different answers, but he didn’t seem satisfied with any of them. “Yes/Ho/No/Hoina/Maybe/Hola”
“Do… you like … earthquakes?” our new friend breathed into Stew’s face. Eventually, Bahini and someone who may have been new friend’s father dragged him off, as Stew tried to use the newly charged phone again.
Folks responded to the event in different ways. Most people just found some place out of the sun to sit down and fan themselves. Some folks got drunk. Some people sat in silent shock for hours. Some folks gossiped. Some folks just watched us and asked random questions.
“Will there be another quake?” “How big will the next quake be?”
“We don’t know. No one knows.”
“Someone told me, we will be getting a 9.5 quake tomorrow at 4pm.”
“That person was lying. No one in the world can predict when the next earthquake will happen.”
As the hours passed, we felt ‘safer’ and braver. We began to think it was over. When the ‘tipping point’ moved us from anxiety to boredom, we hesitantly moved back inside. And then back outside, for a while, when we noticed neighbors needed help to move their stuff from what was left of their house. They were missing part of one of the ceilings, and had lost at least two walls in the hours since the quakes started. We made sure to stand clear of the building… it was obviously not finished coming down, but they wanted their stuff and the skies were warning of an impending storm, so we transported the items they piled up in their courtyard, to safer locations.
Our house had a few superficial cracks, but nothing serious. Our host brother proudly said, “Built to stand through a 9-point-oh earthquake!” It was indeed impressive. Later on we would discover that most damage occurred in the older houses, and that the newer concrete buildings were much more stable… for the most part.
Every now and again another quake would happen. A water buffalo, tied up behind one of the houses would start braying every time one went through. There was a lot of braying.
We ate some ramen (dry) and peanut butter for lunch and another batch of the same later for dinner.
When it got dark, Bahini appeared at our door, pointing at our yoga mats and telling us we could not stay overnight in the building. So, we went to sleep on the basketball court of the local highschool along with the majority of the town. By the time everyone had arrived, the entire ball court and part of the school yard was covered completely with a variety of mats. Some folks started small fires around the court, to provide dinner for their friends and family. We settled on our mats, doused ourselves with mosquito repellent, propped our heads on our back packs and watched the stars and the crowd. About every 15 minutes someone new would come to the court and start yelling, singing, or checking to see who was there by flashing their light on each face. It was not a good time. One lady appeared, started screaming, and dragged straw mats out from under about 10 people near us. The mats might have been hers, we weren’t sure. We simply held fast to our blue yoga mats. There were four teenagers and one smaller kid who were trying to sleep in close quarters, but kept getting pushed from one area to another by several elderly women, who apparently wanted whatever area the teens’ were currently resting. There were many drunks who staggered through. One man lying on a mat near Vee noticed that she was watching him as he repeatedly squirted toothpaste from a tube on his finger and rubbed his teeth. Each time he removed the tube from beneath its resting place under his pillow, he reached out to offer the tube to Vee, who kept shaking her head. Many packs of men came through. Some of them started some loud game off in the dark of the playground. The mood of the crowd was restless and anticipatory, as if we were all waiting for a play in the park or a drive-in movie that would never begin. Little sleep was had.
It rained a bit. Then it rained a bit more. The earth grumbled. It was a long, long night.