20th May, 2015. 3am on Saturday 25 April 2015, the phone rang in my hotel room just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, USA where I was staying for a meeting with CARE USA colleagues. A big earthquake had hit Nepal; the country where I am Country Director and my adopted home. My first thought was for the safety of my staff, but more importantly of my own family. My wife is Nepali and Nepal is my home; hearing the news it was as if my own country had been hit and I felt sick to my stomach. Thankfully, and against all the odds, communications lines within Nepal were still working and I was able to call my wife who was shaken but fine. The next step was to work on a way to get back to Kathmandu. Information was scarce and we didn’t know the state of the airport after the quake. Hundreds of aid workers and journalists were also trying to access the country and there were issues with long delays and cancelled flights. I managed to get a connection through Amsterdam and then Bangkok, leaving on the Saturday.
As I rushed to the airport I was called by CNN to give a live prime time interview on the situation and CARE’s planned response before boarding my plane to start the long and complicated journey home. I wasn’t able to get any sleep on either leg of my flights – there were too many thoughts and worries going through my head. I finally arrived – exhausted – in Kathmandu airport on Tuesday afternoon. I was greeted by scenes of chaos. The small and already overstretched airport was struggling to cope with the thousands of people flowing into the country in response to the earthquake, but I was just relieved that at least the airport was open and functioning as in our earthquake contingency planning we had assumed it would be out business.
From the airport I made my way straight to the CARE office where a number of members of CARE’s international emergency response team had already arrived. I held some quick meetings with the staff and gave instructions to prepare office space for the response and new arrivals and thenI made my way home to comfort my wife and assess the damage to my own home, which was thankfully minimal.
At 5am the next morning I was awake and up with too many thoughts running through my head. By 6am I was in the office, to find many of our local and emergency response staff already hard at work.There was huge confusion about numbers of dead and wounded with official numbers unrealistically low, as most of the hardest hit areas were inaccessible and communication systems had broken down. We were already anticipating huge needs for emergency shelter materials and food as well as non-food items like pots, pans buckets and dignity kits, especially for women. Based on this we went straight to work trying to buy the necessary supplies – both internationally and from the limited stocks in country.
I managed to visit the field myself a few days later on May 3 and 4, to see one of the most devastated districts of Sindhupalchowk in eastern Nepal. We had to hike three hours uphill and across a landslide to reach the cut-off village of Baruwa. I was blown away by what I saw – utter devastation. There was not one house left standing in the whole village and people were huddled under a few tarpaulins for shelter. There was no point even doing an assessment of the condition of the houses as there was nothing left to asses. People’s food stock, clothes and personal items were all buried under the rubble of the houses. There were over 200 people dead and countless animals killed. While the dead people had been cremated, the animals had been buried in shallow pits and there was a smell of death hanging in the air.
In the village we heard so many sad stories of loss. One young mother with a one month old baby had lost her four year old daughter in the quake. A 19 year old girl, her father already dead for some years, has lost her mother and elder brother who just got married. She is now left to care, single-handedly, for her young sister-in-law. On top of all this the quake has also created new challenges for the survivors. I spoke to one pregnant young girl who was due to deliver in a week’s time. The health post in the village has collapsed and all the medical equipment and supplies have either been damaged or buried under mounds of rubble and she had no idea what she would do.
Two days later CARE managed to fly in two helicopter loads of food to the village. A four hour drive and three hour hike took just 15 minutes in a helicopter from Kathmandu. Luckily they also managed to open the road and re-connect the village that same day making it much easier to get future supplies to the village and surrounding area.
The situation I saw in Baruwa is, sadly, typical of many of these remote areas that have been decimated by the earthquake and cut off from the rest of the country. We are still trying to find out the scale of the impact in these areas but it looks to be drastic with huge immediate needs in shelter, food and other life-saving interventions. CARE teams are working around the clock to get assessments done and coordinate the assistance and supplies into the country in order to reach communities like Baruwa before it is too late. It is now a race against the clock to provide assistance – especially in the form of shelter – before the monsoon rains begin in June. There will be a lot of long hard days for all in the coming months to try and meet all these needs.