To many in the United States, the recent earthquake in Nepal was a news item that generated momentary sympathy but didn’t have much impact. It didn’t even make the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, although the death of a single American climber did on the day after the temblor. As the days go on, the story will eventually fade away like so many others. After all, Nepal is a long way off and not a major player on the world stage.
But not for me.
In 2003, my last active duty assignment was to a civil affairs team reviewing US military contingency plans for responding to an earthquake in Nepal. As the subject matter expert on earthquake planning, I met with a number of local scientists, government officials, and representatives of both public and private response organizations in Kathmandu and the surrounding area.
Emergency managers are the same the world over. The people I met in Nepal were as dedicated and professional as any others I have met and their seismologists are among the best in the world. We also shared the same frustrations over lack of resources and support for disaster planning. What was different was the environment in which we operated.
Imagine that 90% of your population lived in rural areas so remote that even helicopters had trouble getting in. Imagine that all your relief supplies had to be carried in on your back or using pack animals. Imagine a world where communications systems we take for granted don’t work or work sporadically, so you have little information on which to prioritize your relief efforts.
Take it a bit further. Kathmandu is in many ways an urbane and cosmopolitan city. But it is also an ancient one built of mud bricks, where you sometimes have to turn sideways to move from one neighborhood to another. At the time of my visit, building codes were non-existent and there was resistance to their implementation. Response resources are extremely limited. Add to this a political situation that has left the country without any real leadership for years, resulting in a lack of prioritization for emergency planning.
This is the reality for the emergency planners in Nepal.
The good news is that help is coming from all over the world. The bad news is that there is little infrastructure available to manage the flood of relief supplies and workers, a paradox that we all face in a disaster. The weeks and months ahead will be tough ones for my colleagues in Nepal and they’ll need all the support we can give them.