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When you know a place, its tragedy seems more immediate, more touching. This is how I feel when I read reports of the catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal that has killed at least 7,300 people.
I have made a donation to the Red Cross, but each day after learning more about the extent of the devastation, I realize I must give more.
The death toll rises daily as more and more bodies are pulled out from under collapsed buildings. And many additional dead have been found in remote villages where search and rescue crews have finally arrived.
My daughter, Brett Jones, our friend Janice Marsters and I were in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal two years ago to trek to Mount Everest Base Camp at nearly 18,000 feet above sea level.
The camp is upended now, in ruins after an avalanche triggered by the earthquake slammed down on the its dozens of colorful tents, which are clustered on the Khumbu Glacier on the highest mountain in the world,
At least 19 people died in the avalanche making it the single most deadly incident in Everest history.
Only last April, another avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall above base camp, killed 16 Nepalese Sherpas.
We remember the base camp not as a death zone but as our Mecca, our goal reached after 10 days of the hardest, high altitude hiking I have done in my life.
Most trekkers don’t have access to the interior of the base camp. But we were luckier. When we arrived at the freezing, windy overlook, two Everest summit climber friends were waiting to escort us over a narrow trail of slippery snow for another mile to their expedition tent where their cook served us steaming hot cups of Tang and a platter of Pringles.
To this day, whenever I see jars of Tang or canisters of Pringles in the supermarket, I am flooded with good feelings.
Janice and I had come to Nepal for our Everest Base Camp trek at the invitation of my daughter, who was working in Kathmandu for the U.S. Embassy.
Interestingly, Brett’s title at the embassy was director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Office.
Her job was to help the people of Nepal and the U.S. Embassy prepare for the massive earthquake that scientists knew was coming. It was only a matter of time.
Since its first recorded earthquake in 1255, Nepal has had an earthquake approximately every 70-80 years. The last big earthquake in the country was in 1934, when more than 12,000 were killed. The next massive earthquake was overdue.
Earthquakes in the region are caused by friction in the earth’s crust as the Indian tectonic plate moves below the Eurasian plate. The buildup of pressure along the fault line from the two plates clashing against each other is eventually released in seismic shocks.
Brett left Nepal a year ago for a new assignment in Washington, D.C.
“It is incredibly hard to have worked so long preparing for an earthquake and to be unable to help more when it arrived,” she says. “It is human instinct to want to be there to help.”
But she says she is incredibly proud to find out that all the hours she and her colleagues spent practicing different responses to the expected temblor have been put into action, and that the government of Nepal is responding with the plans Brett and others helped to put in place.
When Janice, Brett and I returned to Kathmandu after our Everest expedition, Brett invited us to tag along on one of the tours she regularly arranged for structural engineers, military officials and personnel from other embassies to see the areas of the city thought to be most vulnerable to an earthquake.
On the tour nicknamed the “earthquake walk,” we were stunned to see how shoddy and makeshift construction was in some sections of Kathmandu. As the population grew, families built willy-nilly structures, one story on top of the other, going ever higher and higher on buildings permitted for only one or two stories.
Janice, who is an engineer, took many pictures to show her engineering associates in Honolulu.
We were told building codes existed on paper, but enforcement was lax, often non-existent.
Brett says the aftermath of this earthquake is “bad and horrible and sad,” with rising numbers of dead and destruction of many UNESCO world heritage sites, but it was not as terrible as had been feared.
She says, “We thought many of the newer multi-story buildings would collapse, but most did not.
“In the worst case planning scenario, we figured there would be more than 50,000 dead. We also thought the airport might be shut down, unable to receive aid workers and supplies, because it sits on a high liquefaction zone.”
Liquefaction happens during earthquakes where groundwater sits close to the earth’s surface in sandy soil. Seismic shocks cause the soil and groundwater to mix, and the soil to lose strength, making the ground liquid, soft and unstable. Buildings sitting on liquefied soils can topple or be rendered dangerously unstable. Airport runways can crack and buckle, making them useless.
Kathmandu Airport remains open. It was built to handle medium-sized jets. On Sunday it was closed to large jetliners because of concern the heavier planes might eventually damage the runway. But medium and small-sized jets are still allowed to land. Relief supplies are arriving slowly.
The feared destruction of all of Kathmandu did not happen. The city was terribly damaged, but not flattened.
If you want to help now, the best thing to do is to send money to reputable relief agencies.
You can check the Charity Navigator on line or this New York Times list for vetted agencies. Three of my favorites are the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children.
All three agencies were already operating in Nepal before the earthquake. They are set up to help with the immediate relief that is needed now: food, water, and tents and tarps.
They will also be there in the future when efforts are made to rebuild Nepal, not just the way it was before but better.
As the TV news crews begin to reduce their coverage of the tragedy in Nepal, it will become easier and easier for us to forget it.
But the years of hard work are just beginning to restore a country that, before the earthquake, was already struggling to feed and shelter some of the poorest yet most generous and kind people in the world.