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Our Man In Nepal

I finally got out of Kathmandu and am now in Bangkok with access to internet and a bed so now I can give you a brief summary of my experience with the situation. I haven't slept in four days.

I actually didn't get into Kathmandu until about five hours after the main earthquake. I was on a layover in Guangzhou, China when I was told by a fellow passenger (who was Nepalese) that an earthquake had hit Nepal. Due to no internet access and the censorship of media in China we had no idea that it was as large as it was. The airline also said nothing before we took off for Kathmandu. Since we had no information on it and the airline didn't seem concerned, I didn't think it was going to be too bad. As soon as we flew into Kathmandu, however, I could tell it was much worse than everyone thought.

There were complete blackouts around the airport with only generators powering certain buildings in the city. The airport had minor damage with some floor buckling and cracked walls. I found out later that the airport was built to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. Luckily, I had booked a cheap hotel just half a mile from the airport so I could walk to it. The airport was crowded with passengers due to the cancelation of flights after the quake. No ATMs or credit card machines were working and I made the mistake of not bringing any currency with me (US or Rupee). Most people were outside since there were constant aftershocks (around 1-2 per hour with many in the 3-4.0 range). The small hotel I went to strongly suggested that all the guests stay in the lobby with the ongoing threat. I wanted to be able to quickly run outside if another large quake occurred, so I tried to get some sleep in the lobby. Every time a aftershock hit everyone went running into the street. The next two days were spent trying to find a flight out since my conference on International Epidemiology was canceled. Originally, I had a flight to Pokhara where the conference was, but all domestic flights were grounded except for rescue operations. The problem was that everyone else was trying to get out too and the Kathmandu International Airport is shockingly small and not equipped to handle a large number of flights each day. In addition, many international military planes were trying to get in to provide assistance. My family was able to book a flight for me to Bangkok scheduled for a few days later so I spent those days sleeping in the park with most of the locals. There were official notices that they were expecting another large quake so no one wanted to be inside buildings. About 24 hours after the large quake there was a 6.4 quake that caught me inside a building but I was able to get out quickly. It was very clear from the beginning that Nepal was woefully underequipped to deal with such an emergency. Nothing seemed organized and it was evident that limited resources were present for the task at hand.

When I went to the hardest hit parts of the city (the poorest) there were bodies piled outside buildings and only a few organized rescue attempts. Even though there were some official rescue operations, they were being done by the local Nepalese police and army and it was clear that they were not formally trained in rescue operations. With buildings completely or partially collapsed, there should have been engineers and structural experts working to make sure the rescuers could safely enter. I tried to help as much as I could but not speaking the language and the disorganized nature of the situation prevented me from doing much. The last day I was there the city started to run out of bottled water and staple foods so I think it will get worse before it gets better. I heard it was hard to get supplies in due to the small airport. I was able to get some food (MREs) from the US Embassy outpost, which was an old officer’s country club. They had tents up but I didn't spend the night since I wanted to be near the airport in case I was able to get a flight out. I spent a lot of time at the airport and saw Spain, Israel, France and other countries actively evacuating their citizens but no such efforts by the US. From what I was told the US rarely evacuates if commercial flights are still going out. Despite the nature of the situation, I found the Nepalese extremely warm and hospitable. While spending time in the parks at night I was offered food and tarps to protect from the rain (I still had no money since everything was offline). This was despite the fact that these people had very little themselves. The sad truth is that this happened to the poorest country in Asia. Bad roads (many closed by landslides), limited infrastructure and resources and a poorly equipped airport are all going to make a huge impact on the recovery operations. An already impoverished country is going to be affected for years, especially since the climbing and tourist industry contribute to most of their economy. Everest will most likely be closed for the foreseeable future (despite just recently opening after the big avalanche last year). After talking to many locals I began to learn that most people were aware that a large quake had been predicted but hardly anyone seemed prepared. Many of the buildings seemed ill-equipped to deal with a large quake in this well known quake region. Some of my epidemiological training is in disaster epidemiology and emergency preparedness so it was emotionally difficult for me to see how unprepared this country was. Hopefully, they can fully recover and become better prepared for more inevitable quakes but it will take an enormous amount of international support and aid. Anyway, these are just my experiences and thoughts about the situation.  (Andrew Lafrenz writing a week ago in the immediate aftermath of the quake.)

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