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IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Caught in the Kathmandu Earthquake
By Bill Willis 03-Jun-15
I grew up, and still have a home, along the San Andreas fault in California, and for my sixty plus years, I have been hearing warnings of the "Big One." I point out to my family the San Andreas Fault as we drive through or by the Cajon Pass, White Water Canyon, or Fort Tejon. All geological features carved by the motion of the earth. We spend most of our time overseas, but our kids, born in Malaysia, have set up residence in Southern California. Last Christmas we gave them stocking stuffers for their "Go-Bags," with what we thought would be the essentials needed in case of a big earthquake. The "big" quake, not those minor 5.0 and below that barely disturb our days as Californians. Likewise Linda and I had our two go bags by the door of our house in Kathmandu. Before we arrived in Kathmandu 19 months ago, the out-going tenant of the house we rented offered to sell her earthquake alarm. We passed. Within a week of our arrival, we were jolted out of our sleep by an earthquake that hit a remote part of southwestern China. Since that event in August of 2013, the earth had been quiet. Each year at work we had earthquake drills. The kids lined up, we took head counts, senior students and faculty had roles setting up triage tents, and search and rescue teams. The school stocked blankets, water, medical supplies, and energy bars. We had plans in place for how parents and students would be reunited. This year we took the drill up a notch with students playing the part of victims throughout the school. Later we met and discussed the pros and cons of our plans and revised as needed. This was a level of preparation I had never seen in my experience in education in California, Germany, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates. Linda and I went shopping on Saturday morning. We bought our usual supply of frozen meat and dry goods at 'Phora Durbar', the US Commissary. We also purchased several large bottles of pasta sauce and bags of bread flour. The Commissary is difficult for us to get to, so we were stocking up on everything we would need before returning to California for our summer leave in early June. We finished putting the groceries away just before noon. Linda heated up leftovers and went upstairs. I thawed some lunch meat from the commissary and started heating up the George Foreman to grill a sandwich. Then the world changed. It happened so quick. One moment I am doing the mundane. The next I am in "flight" mode. It is the surprise that gets you. Our friends Molly and Chip are from Nebraska and were until this week earthquake neophytes. Chip said at least with a tornado you get some warning. I sprinted to the front door with the first rumble and braced myself in the frame of a security door by the time the severe shaking started. Linda was upstairs against one of the walls. It was like the hands of giant beast had grabbed the house and was shaking the contents out. Appliances fell to the floor, a heavy wooden screen from the Philippines fell, pinning the door to the hallway closed across the same path I had just passed. It took minutes for the shaking to stop, but it seemed like forever. Linda rushed down the stairs yelling "Out" and we were out in the driveway. We waited a few minutes and then Linda and I went back in. She got her shoes and jacket, and made sure the grill was off. I grabbed my boots, jacket, and the go bags. Our house was built by a Nepali civil engineer who works in California. It is surrounded by a high wall on four sides. The house and the wall were still standing. A testimonial to his skill. In the past if I had any complaint about the house, it was that the windows were not sealed tight. Keeping out the cold air of winter or the dust of the dry season was a lost cause. But when the earth shook, the windows did not break. I had trouble putting on my boots. My hands were steady, but my feet wouldn't stop shaking. We opened our gate. The walls of many of our neighbors had collapsed. Their houses were still standing. Everyone was out on the street. The lady across the lane asked if we were ok. All her walls were down. The yard stood naked before me and she asked if we were ok. Lincoln School is only a hundred yards up the road. It was obvious that the greatest damage in our neighborhood was to the nerves. Nobody wanted to be near a tall structure. At school, we found about fifty people in the middle of the field: Students from a play practice, students who were taking mock AP exams, construction workers, and a few teachers and their families, and staff. We sat in the field under leaden skies as wave after wave of aftershocks shook the ground. We still had internet that first day. We passed out iPads and many used the school's laptops to charge up their phones. Communications with loved ones was paramount. Many of the school's students were on sports trips out of the country. Linda and I left phone messages and used Facebook and Gmail to inform the community of our status and to communicate with our families, but it was the middle of the night back in the US for our own loved ones. Between aftershocks, we started pulling out the emergency supplies, handing out thick wool blankets and water. As the afternoon waned, we put up the large, metal framed tents, but we were nervous about the frames holding up through the shocks. Linda and I went back to our house and filled up bags with food, including homemade bread. We dragged out a large gas stove from the teachers' workroom and hooked it to a propane tank. Emily, one of our young resourceful teachers made a great meal using our food and food from the school's canteen. It turned out to be a very cold wet night. The tent provided shelter from the light rain, but everyone was cold. The only bright spot was making connections with our loved ones back in the US during our evening. The cold and the rolling earth kept us all awake. The next day, breakfast was hard boiled eggs and peanut butter from our shopping trip the previous morning. Parents and students were being reunited which was good news. But there was no power to our area, and the batteries that kept the cell and data working throughout the city were running out. That and the continuing shakes drained the spirits of our group. Linda and I went back home, checked in with our Nepali neighbors, and started to clean the house. It was good to bring some sort of order to the chaos of the house. Then the second earthquake/major aftershock hit and we scrambled out of the house. We spent the afternoon on the school's field. But by the evening we had setup our own tent on the driveway of our house. We made it comfortable with a mattress from a roll-away bed and warm with our sleeping bags. Then the heavens let loose with a deluge, flooding our driveway and the tent with water. Lots of water. We thought about all the people we saw under tarps in our neighborhood. I'm not sure if they did what we did or not, but we went back into the house and slept close to the door with clothes and jackets on, ready to run out the door. Linda told me the earth was still shaking that night, but I had succumbed to exhaustion and stress, and was blissfully asleep. We later learned that at school the tents were flooded, and following the aftershocks of the evening, the teachers, their families, and the staff slept in school vans. Monday was warm. No power. No cell service. No internet. We caught a ride to another section of town that had all three. On the way, for the first time, we saw for ourselves some of the damage the rest of the world was seeing on their television or online. We were also able to catch up on the news through services on the internet. It was humbling. We were inconvenienced, but we were alive. We mourn the loss of so much life. The devastation of world heritage sites saddens us, especially Bhaktapur, one of our favorite locations. But Nepal will persevere albeit with a lot of help in the near future. If you had Nepal on your bucket list of places to visit, it is good to know that Nepal is not just the mountains or the temples, or the ancient sites. It is the people. They are poor in wealth, but rich in spirit. They are generous and wise. They haven't lost any of that, and in the near future when the roads are repaired, and services are returned, visit Nepal, and meet these wonderful people. We are glad we did.
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