Guest post: One year after the earthquake

Today we look back at the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April, 2015, killing over 8,000 people and affecting millions. 

Scott MacLennan writes a guest post for Tell History recalling his experience of the earthquake. MacLennan is the founder of The Mountain Fund and Her Farm, a safe place for women to live, farm, and thrive. He is also the recipient of the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal.  

MacLennan recounts the dramatic moments of the earthquake itself and the chaos that followed in its wake. Beyond the challenges of reconstruction, there were manmade issues to deal with. First there was the  contentious decision by the Nepali government to introduce a new constitution in the aftermath of the disaster. Afterwards there were fuel and supply shortages caused by a blockade along the Indian border. He also discusses how history was literally built into the structures that withstood the earthquake. 

April 25th, 2015 – I had just walked out the front door of my home in Mankhu Village, Dhading District and was planning to go up on the roof of the house to capture some photos of the surrounding village. I stopped in front of my car to fidget with my camera when the front of the car started hopping up and down. It’s an old car, subject to problems so my very first thought was “what’s wrong with this damn car now?” I heard noise to my back and turned to see my wife and a group of women and children huddled in an open space and shouting at me to move away from the house. I realized my car wasn’t acting up, this was the “big one” we’d been expecting. My wife was shouting for me to move farther away from the house which I now realized was swaying like a palm tree in the breeze. I heard a noise to my side and turned to see a portion of a wall on an older house at the farm explode inwards. Then I heard sounds like canon booming and turned the opposite direction toward the sound. Then I sat down and stayed there until the ground stopped moving.

Our immediate response was to find out what had happened in our own community. We surveyed our housing, then sent runners out to look at the rest of the village. We knew something big had happened as the runners began to come back with reports that nearly every house was destroyed. People from the village gathered at our housing, since it was nearly all still standing and we started to fill empty rooms with survivors. A few injured people were treated in our clinic. That first night we set up tents and a make-shift kitchen outdoors to feed the many people who had no place to cook, nor food they could prepare.

The next day we organized a truck and went to towns up and down the main highway. We knew that tarps, tin roofing and food were immediate needs and gathered all we could from shops on the highway. We found a shop that sold solar panels but it was closed so we bought a solar panel right off some persons roof and brought it back to the village so people could recharge mobile phones to call relatives. For the next week or so we continued forays on the highway to get any supplies we could find.

The constitution issue seemed surreal. While the country had been waiting years for this, it was incredible that it had to be done right now, when there was so much else to do. Most in the village could have cared less about this constitution matter, food, water, shelter and relief were the only things on their minds.

By the time the border dispute arose, life in the village had settled into a fairly normal routine. People were busy trying to farm, trying to put life back together. In the village the lack of fuel wasn’t really an issue. No one has a vehicle. We had plans to start rebuilding the road to the village so supplies for rebuilding could be brought up but were delayed in that as we couldn’t find fuel for the excavators. Other than that, the border embargo was really just a nuisance. We could still get cooking gas and fuel on the black market, just for much more money than before. In the village most cooked with wood, so again, the lack of supplies didn’t affect them much. In Kathmandu where people depend much more on fuel it was a bigger issue. We had to bring wood from the village to our house in Kathmandu to cook. We were able to do so because we could buy fuel for the truck on the black market, again at triple (or more) the previous cost.

Since the embargo was lifted, not much has changed. There’s still shortages of fuel and cooking gas. I’ve seen little reconstruction in Nepal. In Kathmandu many people repaired homes that were not destroyed. I’ve seen the destroyed homes mostly torn down. In the villages, temporary housing was improved and added to so the temporary housing is nearly at the level that the actual homes were before the quake. Everyone is waiting on the government to do more.

What we learned, or let me put it this way, what I learned is we need to be much better prepared. This isn’t the last quake. Our goal now is to build a facility that can serve several villages and be a command center for future disasters and a central place where people can come for help. Our farm served that role in the 2015 quake on an ad hoc basis. Next time we need something in place that’s more planned and at the ready and a place where people know to go. We are planning a community center soon to fill that void.

As far as NGO lessons I’d have to say the number one issue, the one thing to learn is that NGO’s need to get out of the cities and establish base of operations in villages. Our village, Mankhu, was lucky, we were there and had a great number of resources we could put to work immediately. We are one of a very few NGO’s working right in a village which was a huge advantage to Mankhu, and nearby Goganpani. We had housing, we had access to cash money, we had trucks and communication systems and back up power. Most villages did not as no NGO’s work in the village on a regular basis. Most are officed in towns and just visit the villages. Being on the ground made a huge difference.

History in our village is an odd thing. We had homes that withstood the quake fairly well as they had been built by carpenters who were older and knew of the last big quakes from their families. They used timber interlaced with the stone in the form of a timber ring beam. It made all the difference in the world. As time went on, and memories of the past quakes faded, people stopped using timber ring beams which lead to many more structural failures. Had the memories been kept alive better, fewer houses would have been lost. As there isn’t a way to really record history in the village, other than to pass down the stories verbally, over time the knowledge of people who had lived through past quakes–of those who had built with timber ring beams–gradually faded.

The moment a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal. Photo by Scott MacLennan in Mankhu Village, Dhading District.