happiness is...

happiness is...
kenya 2010

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Earthquake Ramblings, part 1

It was a Saturday like any other here in Kathmandu. It was around noon and we were in church,  1/2 way through the sermon, when the lights suddenly went out. That is nothing unusual in Nepal, where scheduled power outages are a daily occurrence- but somehow this was different. There was a sound and a vibration that came with it that felt...wrong. My pastor's eyes opened wide and he paused, and all of a sudden I stood up and yelled, "Earthquake!", and we rushed for the door. It was like trying to run in a boat on the crashing waves. The chairs and the people were crashing from side to side. Some of us made it out but I couldn't stay on my feet and was thrown to the floor against the wall closest to the door. The woman next to me grabbed onto me, crying, and said, "Please pray with me." So I did. I prayed for us, and for Nepal, and for safety, and salvation. I prayed for mercy, and protection, and the chance to see another day dawn. I have always known God has a sense of humor, but that day he outdid himself. I had spent the better part of the morning furious with a member of our church for something she was doing that I disagreed with from a cultural sensitivity perspective, and this is whose arms god thrust me into in what was possibly the last moments of my life. Funny how an earthquake can put things in perspective! After what seemed like eternity (but was closer to 2 minutes), the movement stopped and I rushed outside and up the stairs to join the others in the small grassy area in front of our church. Our buildings and those next to us were still standing but we lost a brick wall along our property and large cracks could be seen in other buildings and walls around us. A few minutes later, the first aftershock hit. I think that may have scared me more than the actual earthquake because I now knew what was coming. The aftershocks were frequent and scary, and eventually we moved to a bigger field behind our building and huddled together as a community to comfort each other and wait to see what was to come.

When the aftershocks calmed and we thought it was safe, we made our way toward a teammate's house. The damage was sporadic- some areas had a lot of collapsed walls, broken glass, etc... and others looked untouched. Nearly every brick wall/fence between church and our apartment had toppled onto the walkways and streets- but once we turned onto our lane, we didn't see any damage either to the houses or the surrounding walls. We went into our apartment with a 2 minute time limit, to grab what we'd need for a night away as well as items out of our earthquake kit, and food to share with our community. For the first time since moving to Nepal, I kept my shoes on while in the house. That isn't done here, but for 3 days none of us removed our shoes. For the first 2, we even slept in them. Our house looked like it had been ransacked by looters, with things strewn all over the house, bookshelves upended, and water covering the floor in the kitchen where the fridge had defrosted- but nothing was broken and there was no damage to the house. We grabbed our stuff, and as another strong aftershock rocked the house, we ran.

En route to my teammate's house, I was called by a fellow healthcare worker and told that my help was needed at one of the Kathmandu hospitals. Since all transportation was halted, I made my way by foot. The further I got from my neighborhood, the more damage I saw. The oldest buildings fared the worst. At the hospital, it looked like chaos, but was actually pretty well under control. Hundreds of injured patients were waiting, and hundreds more arriving, but there was a system in place that was treating those that needed it the most, and I was helping monitor and comfort those whose wait would be indefinite due to limited resources and equipment availability. I managed a couple of IVs, took vital signs, and helped upgrade a couple of fairly critical patients so that they were moved to the front of the waiting list and seen quickly, but my biggest contribution wasn't medical- I think it was in providing some comfort and compassion to people who had just lived through the most traumatic moment of their lives. Anyone could have done what I did that day- so I felt blessed to be the one given that opportunity. My teammate Steve had a hero moment, in my eyes. We were brought a young boy of about 3 or 4 years old who had been rescued from the rubble and brought to the hospital, but without his parents or anyone that knew him. He was mostly unhurt, but understandably terrified. Steve spoke with him and the boy told him the area that he lived and that he could find his house- so Steve scooped him up, put him on his motorcycle, and drove to his neighborhood in search of his house so that he could be reunited with his family.

After a long day, we all gathered at a friend's one story house to fellowship and sleep en masse. I am not sure if there is safety in numbers, but there is comfort in numbers. My roommate Carly and I slept outside on the ground, in sleeping bags. We didn't get much sleep, as every half hour, we could feel the rumble of tremors and with the stronger ones, we would jump up and run toward the opposite side of the yard to an agreed upon "safe place". When the rain started, we went in to sleep on the concrete floor of the kitchen. It was a long night.

The next day, we remained gathered and vigilant. The aftershocks continued to come, but with less frequency and less magnitude than before- until around noon, when the 2nd earthquake hit. This was a 6.7 with the epicenter near my village in Sindhupalchok. It was another long one- over a minute- but felt very different than the first. A group of us ran from the house and huddled on the lawn as the earth flowed, or slid, or undulated (we haven't been able to agree on a word) side to side. It was a surreal, almost nauseating feeling and after that, every little vibration sent us running for the door. One of my friends had to change the settings on her mobile because every time her phone vibrated she jumped, and panicked.

After another night on the floor in the "flop house", some of us decided that we couldn't sit around and do nothing, so we grabbed some medical supplies and work gloves, and headed to an area called Patan Durbar Square, which was badly hit, to see if we could help in any way. We were directed to a tent camp set up outside the square and were able to treat a few patients there, who had injuries caused by the quake. Our contact at that camp then took us to several other tent camps, as well, to see if we were needed. We treated a handful of abrasions, lacerations, and orthopedic injuries, but for the most part people were either healthy, or had already sought treatment at the hospital. Like at the hospital, things were pretty much under control and in a "hurry up and wait" mode. We felt glad to be able to help in a small way, but thrilled that we weren't needed in a big way.

Day/night #4 was spent at my house. I figured it needed to happen sooner or later, and the mess in my house wasn't going to clean itself. After a couple of hours of cleaning, I began to get a little overwhelmed- not just with the cleaning, but with processing what had happened and what was happening all over our country. I took a break and went outside with my guitar to play a little and unwind. As I started to play, they came. Old people, young people, children... they flocked in from around the neighborhood and stood outside my gate, peering over and listening. I don't have very many songs memorized on the guitar so I made things up. I sang about God's love for us and how, though the mountains shake and the earth trembles, we don't have to be afraid. I just sang and sang and sang. After I had exhausted myself and my fingers were sore, I stopped and smiled. One of the men who had been standing silently said to me, "You have brought solace to our hearts." Wow.

News started pouring in about the devastation in certain parts of Nepal. Though there were many pockets of devastation in Kathmandu, there were still more that were largely unaffected in terms of buildings collapsing and injuries/deaths- so in our area it was easy to feel like everything was okay. Almost like it didn't happen. The reports of other areas, though, were telling a different story. One of the areas hardest hit was Sindhupalchok, which is the district where the village that I am planning to do research in (Marming) is located. The epicenter of the second earthquake hit near Marming and reports were coming back that all the houses were destroyed, some of the people had died, they needed food, shelter, and medical assistance, and that no one had reached them since the quake. All phone towers were down and there was no electricity, so no one could call in or out. The reports came from staff at a nearby adventure resort who had trekked their tourists out on foot to a point where they could be rescued by helicopter. As soon as I heard the news that Marming was devastated, a fire was lit in me that I knew wouldn't be extinguished until I reached them. I have felt this before- the first time being after hurricane Katrina, when I felt desperate to go and help. This time was stronger- I have come to know and care about many members of this community during my previous visits and I was desperate to know if they were okay. I was also desperate to let them know that they hadn't been forgotten and someone cared enough about them to try to help them. That was easier said than done. For nearly 24 hours, I followed every lead I could to try to arrange transport to Marming. Reports of massive landslides blocking the road made vehicle travel unlikely, so I tried getting a spot on a helicopter bound for the village. The first day, storms grounded the helicopter. On the second day, it was canceled- reportedly due to bureaucracy. Day two brought plan B, which was to join another volunteer team headed to that district and try to convince them to help me reach Marming. After a frustrating day of Nepali-style processes and planning beginning at 8:45am, we finally hit the road at about 3pm. Sitting in the back of a rusty old pickup truck, in the rain, wearing a poncho and a hard hat to protect against falling rocks, i was finally content.

We were amazed at the devastation as we left the Kathmandu valley. The further we got, the worse the damage. In some towns and villages, the loss was nearly total and you could smell death in the air. Houses were now piles of brick and stone, and makeshift shelters and tent camps were erected in open spaces. We stopped at a few places to assess needs and damage, and to provide minor first aid. We arrived in Kharichaur after dark, and went to the "home" of one of our team member's families. Their house was destroyed, too, so we crammed 7 of us into their already crowded tarp shelter, and they fed us. That is Nepali hospitality. They lost everything, yet they were helping us help others. We slept in rows, in sleeping bags, on the dirt floor of the shelter- but it felt like home.

(stay tuned for part 2)
The Nepalis are very resourceful and this held true when making shelters

No comments:

Post a Comment