Devastating Earthquake in Nepal: Feeling from Abroad

Shorter version of this article appeared in Casper Star Tribune yesterday.

It has been three weeks since Nepal was hit by a killer earthquake. The massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 Richter scale occurred at 11:56 am (Friday night MT) on 25th of April, 2015 killing nearly 8500 (as of May 18) people and injuring more than twice as many. The epicenter of this quake was the Barpak village of Gorkha district, 80 km northwest of capital city Kathmandu and hypocenter was only 15 km deep. Hundreds of thousands of houses in Kathmandu and villages of surrounding districts were earthen unimaginably. The quake even shook the slopes of Mount Everest (the highest peak on earth) region triggering an avalanche that buried part of a base camp packed with national and foreign climbers preparing to make their summit attempts killing at least 18 people and injuring about 61. It even shrunk Mount Everest by one inch and raised Kathmandu by three feet as estimated by scientists using seismic interferometry. The quake has also impacted northern India, Tibet and Bangladesh. About 8 million people are affected by the disaster in Nepal.

(update: Another big quake hit Nepal on May 12 that has killed ~150)

How did I hear?
My phone and social media profiles started flooding with messages from families and friends asking my and my family’s safety, which I saw only after I woke up at around 5 am the same day in Laramie. I got so worried when I saw the pictures of the earthquake. Right after, I called my mom living ~200 km west of the epicenter. I also talked to my sisters. They were fine. My mom said that it was very hard shaking and for a long time. My dad was not at home since morning that day and tensions rose as repeated phone calls didn’t reach to him. He had gone to another town. Phone services were not reliable because of sudden rise in the call traffic and damage in the equipment. We were relieved when he came back home after few hours. I then started contacting my relatives and friends. The only thing that mattered the most at the beginning was to check my family was fine, be sad for those who passed away in the earthquake and pray for the people. For three to four nights everyone slept outdoors in an effort to stay safe from the aftershocks coming one after another. Nature didn’t do justice when rain and thunderstorms creating even more difficulty. More than 100 aftershocks of magnitude more than 4 made it the scariest. Getting right information from the ground using personal contacts, calls, emails and social media posts was very crucial. It was a very painful moment. Many of my friends were not able to know whether their family members were still alive for days. Even though my family and houses remain safe, houses of many of my friends got completely destroyed beyond repair, some friends lost their parents and siblings. My friends who also attended University of Wyoming and come from the village close to epicenter lost their houses completely. One of my friends who has been planning to complete his PhD in chemistry at the New Mexico State University in few months lost his father and uncle in his house at Sindupalchwok district, one of the hardest hit district, his mother was rescued live. My colleague lost her sister, sister-in-law and their child. There is still a lot of trauma going on for people.  Many of them are still outside, living in fields and tents. It is shocking and depressing to see how people have lost their lives, their houses, schools and mental peace. It has, at the same time, been difficult for the Nepali students at UW and their families in Laramie as they try to cope with the situation and work towards the end-of-semester.
Social media
The social media platform played very crucial role to get us updated and make connections to the loved ones in this difficult time. Communication to loved ones back home was not easy, especially during the early hours. The phone lines were so busy that it was hard to get through. Social media such as Facebook and twitter along with Skype and viber became vital to check on family and friends. Facebook’s “Safety Check” tool allowed anyone with a Facebook account to check how many friends are in an affected area, and see how many of them used the tool to confirm that they are safe. Google also launched a Person Finder tool in Nepali and English, which allowed people to search for and share information about missing persons. Web-based messaging tools like WhatsApp helped people circumvent crowded or disrupted phone lines. Even though I was far from home and not physically present there, I was able to closely follow every update from Wyoming.
In memory of the century old heritage sites
The Himalayan quake has damaged not only houses but also many monuments and temples listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Among them was the 9 story tower at the center of Kathmandu known as Dharahara. This tower was built in 1832. When I moved to Kathmandu in 1996 from countryside, it was this white tower standing above all the buildings. One could clearly see it. I had passed by this tower more than hundred times. We wished to climb this tower one day to have a 360 degree view of Kathmandu valley and surrounding mountains. In 2005, this tower was open to public. Then, I had climbed the narrow stairs of the tower with my mom while she was visiting me in Kathmandu. We went to the balcony at the 8th floor and watched Kathmandu for some time. This tower was not just a tower but had become a monument, an icon of Kathmandu and Nepal. Seeing it earthen brought tears into the eyes of millions. At first when I saw the photograph of the grounded tower, I could not believe it. I wished it was a bad dream. Unfortunately it was not. Also damaged were the century old temples in Basantapur, Patan, and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares, all listed in UNESCO heritage sites. I returned to Kathmandu after completing my PhD from the University of Wyoming last year and was staying close to the Patan Durbar Square area. Since then I have been to the heritage site several times and have taken hundreds of photographs. Now they are in photographs only. I know these places very well. The heritage and temples our ancestors built were the attraction for millions of visitors from across the globe are now limited to some photographs only.
We knew that a big quake was coming but we were not sure when. The science is not able to make earthquake prediction yet unlike warnings for other natural disasters. There was very small effort to make houses quake resistant in Nepal. Most of houses in rural Nepal are made from bricks and stones joined by mud. These are the houses that were destroyed the most. Nepal is known for tall mountains. The great Himalaya range lies in the intersection of two giant tectonic plates of earth. Indian plate on south and Asian plate on the north side of Nepal. The Indian plate moves towards Asian plate and because of this movement, there is huge amount of energy stored inside the earth and when it releases this energy that part of the world is shaken almost every 80 years.
In a time of hardship, everyone wants to be with the loved ones to feel and share the pain. Unfortunately that was not possible for millions of Nepali living abroad. Being far from home and your loved ones when you could have helped had you been with them breaks our heart. Just seeing all damage on news and social media and not being able to help by only pray makes us feel helpless. Fortunately we Nepali are not alone at this moment. We are surrounded by supportive communities and friends around the world. University of Wyoming community and local Laramie community have been very supportive. Everyone has expressed concern and solidarity. I participated in a candlelight vigil prayer organized by Nepali community on Campus on Monday evening, 27th April for those affected by the quake. There is very little we can do but with the support from wonderful people around us, Nepali students attending the University of Wyoming, Laramie have collected some fund and relief materials, including medicines and school supplies to provide those to the victims when few of us fly to Nepal after the end of semester.
Now the life is slowly coming to normal. While we have lost peace of mind, we haven’t lost our hopes. We have to rebuild our heritage sites and houses. We rebuilt after the 1934 big quake by ourselves when our country was isolated and there was not much help from outside world. Good thing is this time we are not alone. We are fortunate to have helping hands around the world and we are well connected to them. Working together, we can for sure bounce back stronger. At this tragic pain also, smiles on Nepali faces has not been buried. People are helping each other, sharing food and shelter, which is a part of our culture. It has brought every Nepali together. Now, it’s time to build new Nepal. I will be going back to Nepal in two weeks and will see the devastation personally.

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