Journalist Donatella Lorch contributed this piece from Katmandu, where she lives with her family.
Katmandu, Nepal — January 15th was the 80th anniversary of the 8.4 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Kathmandu in 1934. Within a minute, 17,000 people were dead in Nepal and Northern Bihar. In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, 80,000 buildings crumbled and 8,500 people died.
The 1934 Earthquake in Nepal destroyed 80,000 buildings in the capital Kathmandu
Though earthquakes are frequently felt in the capital city (two since August), earthquake history shows Kathmandu gets hit by a major quake every 75 years or so. In a recent email, the U.S. Embassy here in Nepal reemphasized the need for being prepared for the inevitable: “it is not a matter of if but of when,” I was reminded. We are definitely due. John, my husband, argues with my angst. “Earthquakes don’t observe anniversaries,” he reminded me this morning. Followed by the line he used to convince me to move here six months ago: “Earthquakes aren’t like pregnancies. They don’t have due dates.” We have learned some lessons in our half year in Nepal. I slept through the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in August and was shaken awake by John yelling “Earthquake!” We then walked out onto our balcony instead of doing what we were supposed to do: grab our son from his bed and get out of the house.
But today the anniversary reminds me of the cataclysmic possibilities. Knowledge is power after all and to be terrified all one has to do is go surf Google. The Kathmandu valley sits on an ancient lake bed, a big bowl of jello that in earthquake language is called a liquefaction zone, an area that magnifies shock waves. The mountains circling us volley the shock waves back into the valley magnifying the damage. In Kathmandu, earthquake talk is common. There are the worriers like myself and the ostriches, who prefer to keep their heads solidly in the sand.
Kathmandu is not the same city as in 1934. More than 2.4 million people now live in a densely urbanized valley where the population has grown by 500 percent in the past 50 years. Building codes are haphazardly enforced if at all. Buildings are built on the cheap with substandard bricks and concrete. The narrow streets are a spider web of black interlaced cables and electrical wires. When they crumble, the roads will be impassable except on foot. Lucas, my eight-year-old, has tagged buildings on the way to his school as those that will pancake and those that might stay standing. The former wins.
In a recent earthquake preparedness meeting, experts including OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an 8.0 quake could displace 1.8 million, kill 100,000 and injure at least 300,000 people. Hospitals will be overwhelmed if not destroyed and clean water, food and medicine will be in short supply. Sounds bad? Now stop and think about how help will get into the valley. Experts believe that a large earthquake will make most if not all the impossibly narrow precipice-bordered roads into the valley (there aren’t that many to begin with) impassable and blocked by landslides and will seriously damage the airport. There are 19 bridges between our house and the airport. Looks like walking will be our main means of transportation anywhere.
The message from the UN and the embassies is straightforward: we have to survive with no outside help for at least two to three weeks. As a World Bank family, we fall under the UN security network. We have neighborhood wardens and every few months do practice drills. With phones and communications most likely unusable, we are on a radio system and do weekly radio check-ins. We store potable water, food and clothes in a safe area outside our house and have go-bags ready. My friends and I joke that they really should be called “stay bags” as no one is going anywhere outside the valley.
Lucas knows his earthquake drills from both school and home. Drop, Cover, Hold. We have identified the areas in our home which hopefully wont cave in. Lucas sleeps on the bottom level of a bunk bed (extra head protection). I make sure he has a flashlight under his pillow, water and a whistle. His clothes are piled on a bed corner at arm’s length (with an extra sweater in the present cold winter months) He has a whistle in his school bag too and he himself asked for a face mask. He reasons that this very dusty city will be choked in clouds of rubble dust. His school is well prepared too with food and water and parents have been assured that it will last several weeks for all the students. Lucas knows that it might take me more than a day to get to him.
We are at least a bit prepared. Many are not, especially many Nepalese who are fatalistic about earthquakes and see them as the hand of God (or Gods as there are millions of gods here). Years of covering war zones as a reporter has translated into my managing family earthquake logistics. I know that our best chance of survival begins with avoiding serious injury. Unfortunately, I can’t control that. It is the post quake panic and chaos that worries me a touch. Luckily, I live in a heavily agricultural suburb with a vast number of cows, buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. Not enough for 1.8 million homeless but it is a start.
The earthquake preps have had light moments too. When a US embassy warden asked me for the satellite coordinates of my house, I provided him with the ones given to me by the United Nations. He emailed me back a few days later rather confused: “You live on the Indian border?” he asked. “I thought you lived in Kathmandu?” It is good to laugh in the face of disaster sometimes.
Donatella Lorch is a former New York Times reporter currently living as a writer in Katmandu, Nepal.