Earthquake experts pen first-person account from ground zero

Earlier this month we joined around 50 natural and social scientists, and practitioners engaged in earthquakes risk reduction from China, France, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Singapore and the UK in Kathmandu to discuss earthquake preparedness along the Alpine Himalayan Belt.

NSET-Nepal, the National Society for Earthquake Technology, a local NGO and research partner in our Earthquakes without Frontiers (EwF) research project, hosted the event.

The last major earthquake to hit Kathmandu was in 1934, when around 10,000 people died. We knew that the next event could happen the following week, or not in our lifetimes; it is impossible to predict earthquakes, however much governments would like to imagine that you can.

The timing of our meeting was not prescience; it was coincidence.

Many earthquake scientists go to bed with their shoes beside their beds, away from furniture that might topple over, with windows curtained, and a bottle of water and head torch close to hand. They do this whenever they are in the field, even though they will probably never experience an earthquake. Others of us are more cavalier.

On April 11, a fortnight before the earthquake, NSET's local experts took us on a guided "earthquake walk" through Kathmandu's old town of tiny streets and courtyards, where houses have been divided vertically on inheritance, and additional stories added to already rickety structures as families have grown. Building codes exist on paper but not, often, on the ground. The old adage that "earthquakes don't kill, buildings do" came to mind as we worked our way through the warren of lanes.

The following day we went to see retro-fitted and new, earthquake-proof schools. One new school on the outskirts of Kathmandu had been built with just one staircase and escape route; another had a storeroom for emergency equipment, locked and with just two keys held by member of the community while old computers were stacked on shelves, waiting to come crashing down.

One of our group bluntly told our local hosts that this level of preparedness was simply not good enough; the rest of us, unsettled, looked at our feet and felt this was not the time or the place to voice such criticisms. How wrong we were.

Nepal is a least developed country, with a dysfunctional state, distinctly limited capacity, and reliant on a mix of remittances from migrant workers and assistance from donors. For many poor Nepalese, investment in earthquake prevention was bottom of their list of priorities; education, health and livelihoods come first. Or they did until Saturday.

Two of us left Nepal just days before the earthquake stuck just before noon on Saturday. But one of us - Hanna - stayed to undertake PhD research on earthquakes and resilience in the city of Bharatpur in south-central Nepal, slightly closer to the epicentre of the quake than Kathmandu. Fortunately, the city survived the shaking, with limited damage to buildings and infrastructure.

These are extracts from Hanna's emails over last the few days:

Saturday, 7.57 pm

No aftershocks for 2 hours. Last one was strong. Everyone calm. I am at Global Hotel in Bharatpur, it is a good place to be, near airport, hospital and army barracks. I am with Rajat (my research assistant) and his friends. We will rotate who sleeps tonight. I did not sign up for this as part of my PhD!

Sunday, 1.34 am

The earthquake started at 11:56 am on the day of rest (Saturday), therefore there were not many vehicles travelling and shops closed and few people out in Bharatpur. My research assistant and I were walking on New Road near the river. I heard what I thought was thunder. And the metal was shaking on the commercial building next to the road. I looked to the other side and the same was happening with that building. People were looking at the sky. I asked Rajat what he thought was going on. He said "earthquake".

I felt faint and not stable on the ground; there was a yellow haze and it appeared as if waves were coming from the ground, and the ground was shaking horizontally. It lasted around a minute and a half. I swayed, but did not fall.

People were and continue to be calm and smile, nine hours later. Everyone was outdoors for hours, I even conducted a focus group discussion with a women's group outside of a school. After the earthquake, we just continued to our meeting! I think we were in shock. We met a home owner who we interviewed last trip and he wanted to know if we thought his house was safe. I felt only one tremor until 14:30 but people said there had been up to five. ...We were 60 km from the epicentre but thankfully we had minimal deaths. ...People were listening to FM radio and we watched Indian TV in a shop to see the developing situation in Kathmandu. ... We visited a social activist and his community to see if they were secure. We had tea and discussed earthquake preparedness and response. They asked if I planned on changing my research to post-disaster. There was much laughter for the earthquake lady...

We made our way back to the hotel around 17:00. While I was preparing a bag for the night (I did not want to be alone in my 1st floor room) a strong aftershock startled... The continuing aftershocks are jarring and regular enough to keep my stomach in a knot. The images on local and national TV are heart-breaking. I have stopped watching. I am too involved. I handed out orange whistles that I had purchased as a gift for the municipality to the hotel staff, fellow Americans staying at the hotel and my RA and his two friends.

It is 1:00 am and I am going to nap soon...I hope this new day brings nothing interesting to report...

Sunday, 10.03 am

It is 10:00 am, I slept on a couch in the restaurant. There were tremors at 3:00 and 5:00 this morning. I went outdoors but they did not last very long. I am going to move to a bungalow that is more expensive but more secure.

A private TV station has caused panic in Kathmandu by saying another earthquake of the same magnitude of yesterday is expected at noon today... Bharatpur is calm, quiet.

Sunday, 9.34 pm

To the earthquake scientists: Do you think the aftershocks will calm down soon? Is this what people (SCIENTISTS) had anticipated?

Monday, 7.31am

We had a great night! There was very low grade shaking around 22:00. Birds are calling this morning, so a comforting sound. I think they have been quiet since the earthquake.

At the end of our meeting, less than a fortnight before the earthquake, several of the Earthquakes without Frontiers team were interviewed by Nepali TV. We were asked what we thought would be the single most important intervention that might prepare the country for an earthquake.

The common response: better buildings. But even following this earthquake, there will be many who will see Nepal's major challenges as developmental: better nutrition, schooling, health facilities, livelihoods, roads, clean water. Integrating disaster preparedness into the mainstream of government and development work will only be slightly easier than it was before Saturday's events. The sense of vulnerability to earthquakes will be greater, to be sure, but the precarity of life in so many other senses and ways will also be no less acute.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Mrs Hanna Ruszczyk is a PhD student and Dr Katie Oven is a post-doctoral researcher at Durham University in the UK; Professor Jonathan Rigg is a professor in the Department of Geography at National University of Singapore. They contributed this piece to The Straits Times.