A Letter from Nepal: Looking Back at the Moments of the Recent Devastating Earthquake

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April 25, 2015, the date of the main earthquake - it was Saturday, the public holiday in Nepal. I left my car at the workshop for having periodic check-ups returning back home together my wife Renuka. After having some shopping, I had entered in a small shop to buy some clothes at Lagankhel in Patan about 20 minutes walking distance from my home. Suddenly, the grid electricity was switched off, which was not expected as per the planned loadshedding of the electricity distribution and thus I was surprised and asked what happened. I hardly completed my senten ce, the floor started shaking. Luckily, the shop was on the ground floor and the shop was right at relatively wider street just separated by the footpath. After the earth started shaking, we (I and Renuka) including the two shop-owners without thinking anything ran to the street. Within less than 10 seconds, we were already at the middle of the street where many other people from other shops located at both sides of the street had rushed. The earth was still shaking so strongly that we could hardly stand on our feet and 6-7 people in our group were holding each other not to fall down on the street.

There were many other people similar to us on the street, some trying to stand, some running, some screaming. We could hear a very big terrible sound like an explosion having no idea from where it was coming. We could see around us all the houses, electric wires, poles and trees were swinging and shaking; the motor bikes both running and parking were falling down. We could hear the terrible sound of the people, crying and screaming. My wife also started crying because our two children were not with us but at two different places. My son Abiral (16 years) was attending an entrance test for A-Level at the school and daughter Akriti (10 years) was at home with her grandparents. We had a brief telephone talk with Akriti just about 20 minutes before and she was preparing for taking a shower. My wife was crying and asking what might have happened to our kids. We could see the street like a wave of the ocean, which I have never seen before. I was surprised how an asphalt road might act like an oceanic wave. We were feeling as if we were in a boat on a violent sea and watching the houses and other infrastructures struggling to stand against the shaking earth.   

After the quake stopped, we rushed to our home. On our way home, we could see collapsed compound walls, fallen bricks on the street,  running and screaming people, haphazardly driven cars and motor bikes. We were also running towards our home. I had left my car to the workshop for regular servicing, therefore we did not have any problem in reaching home. Otherwise, we had to leave our car somewhere out because the road to our home was blocked by the fallen compound wall. On our way home, we tried to contact with Abiral and could talk to him over mobile phone after many attempts were happy to know that he was safe and returning home by walking. The mobile and telephone networks were completely over-loaded and was difficult to get connections. The electricity was still out. We could not get connection to talk to our parents or daughter and had no idea about their safety. We wanted to reach home as soon as possible. We did not see any collapsed house on our way home, thus we were a little bit hopeful that our house also might have survived the quake. Yes, it was so. There was no damage in the house.

When we reached home my parents and daughter were out on the open ground in front of our house together with other neighbours. We were really happy to see our daughter and parents safe. Daughter was very much terrified but a bit less than I had expected. Around 20-25 people from the neighbouring households had gathered in the area in search of safer place. The fear of the first earthquake had gone down but we were mindful of the aftershocks and staying in the open area. We tried to get the information about the earthquake, its magnitude and epicenter. The Radio Nepal, Nepal’s only national state radio company was broadcasting live and providing the news on earthquake. We knew that the earthquake was of 7.9 Richter scale and epicenter was in Gorkha district, west from Kathmandu. We also heard that many historic monuments including Dharahara, Basantapur Palace were completely damaged. After some half an hour the first major aftershock occurred. It was also much scary and we could see our house swinging. Though the sun was shining but it was becoming really cold. The average temperature of April this year was almost 10 degree Celsius below that the long-term average temperature of the month of April, which was something unusual. We were feeling that the temperature was going down. My mother and daughter were feeling very cold as they were not properly dressed. We were afraid of going inside because the aftershocks were occurring more frequently.

More frequent aftershocks almost every 5-10 minutes each were really terrorizing all of us, particularly to the women and children, which none of us had experienced before in our life time. The first major aftershocks of 6.6 Richter scale was also new for many people including me, not talking about the main shock of 7.9  Richter scale. We had no idea why so many quakes of such big scales were occurring. I knew that there would be aftershocks after main quake but had not expected so many aftershocks, thus mentally not prepared to cope with this. People were screaming "Pheri aayo" (came again) whenever the earth was shaking. We could not go inside as the strong aftershocks were still very frequent, standing outside and looking painfully to our house swinging during each quake. After almost 4 hours of the first quake, we were feeling hungry, thirsty and cold. I decided to go inside to bring some food, water and warm clothes. Though there was no major destruction in my neighbourhood, the fear of the destruction was really high and people were mentally terrorized and sick due to hundreds of aftershocks in a very short period.

We stayed out overnight, cooked food in the kitchen and took our meal outside. The internet network was still functional and we could get connected to others. I received a call from office whether I was safe. We had received earlier from GIZ an earthquake kit (including tent) and also several orientations on earthquake disaster which was very much useful in that critical moment. The solar energy backup system was really helpful to keep the smart phone working for internet and mobile connections. The central grid electricity system was still out of order and partially repaired only after three days. During that period, there were no TV channels, but only radio and internet were available to get updated news on the latest human casualties, infrastructural damages, rescue efforts etc. Fortunately, none of our close relatives and immediate family members had suffered from the disasters but it took almost a week to get connected to all of them due to poor communication network. The psychological torture brought by hundreds of aftershocks was more terrible than the main quake itself. My daughter became sick. She refused to eat and drink. The first night she vomited. Only about 11 pm, after vomiting she could sleep a little bit. We had prepared a common bed for all family members (i.e my parents, my wife, myself and two children) under the tent in front of our main gate. It started raining and temperature dropped further down to 11 degree Celsius, which worsened the situation. Even after having prepared some bedding arrangement, it was almost impossible to sleep. Continuous fear of aftershocks, not a proper place for sleeping and bad weather did not allow us to have a proper sleep.  

Today is already the eleventh day after first earthquake but still there are aftershocks occurring. We stayed outside for the days and nights. We entered inside just for meals and for using toilets during these 3 days. Since then we are staying inside but life is still far from normal. As of today, death toll is already near to 7000 with more than 15,000 injured. About 170,000 houses completely collapsed and more than 200,000 houses not fit for living. There are many more physical infrastructures partially or fully damaged including schools, hospitals, health centres, other public and commercial buildings, hydropower plants etc. People are still traumatized and are not able to normal life. My daughter is still in shock and traumatized. The schools are still closed. She has not gone to the bed room since then though our house is relative safe and no major damage could be noticed. My son has somehow managed to adjust and adapted with the situation. My wife is still scared to be inside.

I spent my wonderful 6 years in Flensburg for my masters and doctoral study. Part of that period, I was together with my wife and both kids in beautiful Flensburg.  We have very good memory of being there. I am currently the President of Flensburg Association for Energy Management, an alumni organization formed by the returnees of the University of Flensburg and currently having about 40 members in it. Out of them, 12 members are currently out of the country either working or studying. Remaining all the members residing inside the country are safe and having different levels of experiences of coping with devastating earthquake. We here in Nepal have delighted to get the kind words and serious concerns from Flensburg over our safety here during the recent disaster, and express our sincere gratitude to the University of Flensburg in particular and the Flensburg city as a whole.

Dr. Narayan Prasad Chaulagain, i.e. May, 5, 2015

President, Flensburg Association for Energy Management- Nepal (FAEM-Nepal)

Email: narayanchaulagain-PleaseRemoveIncludingDashes-@gmail.com

Narayan Chaulagain
Narayan Chaulagain and his family