Uncertainty and Helplessness Become a Way of Life in Nepal
By DONATELLA LORCH, KATHMANDU: I am not the old me.
It is not something I would have noticed a month ago. But now I notice it almost all the time. I’ve begun to see it in my friends too, in the topic of our conversations, in the lives that we lead and in what makes us happy. I watch it in the eyes and in the body language of the people I interview. I feel it even in the wild weather, the gale force winds and thunderstorms that have torn across my adopted city this week. I am constantly on edge.
I live in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. My life did not change immediately on April 25 when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake tore through central and eastern Nepal, killing more than 8,500 people, injuring thousands and leaving an estimated 2.5 million people homeless. Yes, I remember the fast thuds of my heart and my shaking hands after the interminable 40 seconds of rolling earth, crumbling walls and nearby screams. Then came the more than 240 aftershocks, including a terrifying magnitude 7.3 temblor this month that I weathered on the fourth floor of a swaying building.
“This is not my Kathmandu anymore,” my friend Deepesh Das Shrestha told me recently of the city where he grew up. “I don’t recognize it. People will only talk about one thing: It’s the earthquake.”
It’s really too easy to call it fear. One word cannot possibly encapsulate this inability to predict or control a force that doesn’t have an end date. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” said my 10-year-old son, Lucas, just after a 6.8 aftershock on April 26, “if the earthquake would send us an email telling us when it would arrive?”
Fear for so many of us here is a living, breathing, controlling creature, a domino effect that continues to grow and beat down our rational, intelligent thinking selves. In the past weeks in Kathmandu, panic has spread as astrologers and holy men made public (and incorrect) declarations about the imminent time and date of the next major earthquake. In response, one famous astrologer took to the airwaves to say astrology could not predict natural disasters.
Earthquake fear is also a business venture. The police have arrested several would-be thieves who went through neighborhoods predicting an earthquake with the aim of breaking into empty houses as residents fled. It has gotten to the point where the government canceled a public lecture by one of the most respected Himalayan seismologists because it did not want to risk inspiring panic.
I’ve noticed the symptoms in my friends and in myself. It is in the camps for the displaced; in the far-flung villages facing hunger and landslides; in the homes for orphans; and even in the semi-destroyed prisons where inmates live under tents like so many other Nepalis. It’s the exhausting hypervigilance. I don’t lock or even close the bathroom door anymore, even if it is in a public washroom, just in case it jams in a quake. I slept outdoors for a week, then on the living room floor close to a door that led to my yard for another week, and I will return there when my husband heads out of town. Many of my neighbors still sleep outdoors.
I always wear closed shoes, regardless of the heat, because I know I cannot run through rubble in sandals. I carry a go-bag everywhere, with essentials like bottled water, rain gear, snack food, a hat and several phone chargers. It even sits by my bed every night, alongside a crowbar.
One of Kathmandu’s most common complaints is the “earthquake hangover,” which means we feel the ground moving even when it’s not. Apparently it is an inner ear reaction to all the aftershocks, some 240 since April 25. I deal with it by placing a bowl of water near my laptop so that I have a frame of reference. Every crack, car backfire, slamming door makes me stand up and rush to the door. Even when I turn over in bed, I do a double take, thinking the earth is moving.
Any post-traumatic stress disorder counselor can list the other reactions. Avoidance, trying to bury the trauma, is one of them. That is not my problem. Intrusive thoughts, yes. I have lost count of the hours spent awake in the middle of the night trying not worry about how I would react if another major earthquake hit.
My stress hormones really hit a new high last week when I dropped my son off at school and noticed that many of the other parents were nervously talking about reports that a British seismologist had predicted another large earthquake and that this had supposedly prompted a sizable group of European nationals to leave the country. (International schools in Kathmandu are open, but all Nepalese schools in the affected districts remain closed by order of the government. More than 10,000 schools were destroyed.) I immediately dashed off an email to my husband, who was in Bangladesh, typing it entirely in the subject line: “Am I missing something? There is an imminent big quake?”
Of course, I searched for the seismologist on Google, and to make myself feel better have since refused to mention his name. I just call him Nostradamus. What became my saving grace, my first successful effort at learning to control what I alone can control, was meeting Roger Bilham, another British seismologist, a professor at the University of Colorado and one of the world’s experts on Himalayan tectonic, who with a mix of humor and unbridled enthusiasm explained to me the unmistakable beauty in the word “creep.”
Earthquakes cannot be predicted. Seismologists work with facts and history and provide hypotheses that they change when they are proved wrong. This is what we need to know. The April 25 earthquake did not break the earth’s surface. The Kathmandu Valley moved only 1.5 meters. It could have moved as much as six more meters, but it got stuck and not enough energy dissipated. This situation is very similar to the Kathmandu earthquake of 1833 that had a violent sequel in 1835. Yes, there could be another earthquake, but it could happen tomorrow, in a year, in a decade or beyond. If you evacuated for the next big one, you might have to wait a long while to return. Another earthquake could happen out in western Nepal. In a far less violent scenario, the Indian plate could gently creep or slide under the Eurasian plate, or an earthquake could take place deep inside the Indian plate. Or the stuck plate could push and raise the Mahabharat mountains just south of Kathmandu.
With my introduction to creep (and all the other options), my fear level dropped from a nine to a five out of 10. I am where I am. I live where I live. I can only control certain parts of my life. Yes, I have my nervous hypervigilant moments, and it will take a while before I wear sandals again. I live in a country above a stuck tectonic plate. I cannot control that.
“We are reading a book but have reached only Page 32 out of 65,” explained Professor Bilham, who with colleagues is laying GPS monitoring stations where the earthquake got stuck. “We don’t know what will happen, but it is such an exciting seismological time.”
:: (Source: NY Times): Donatella Lorch, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is a freelance writer based in Kathmandu.
:: People fled a temporary shelter after heavy rains and powerful winds on Saturday. Survivors of the April 25 earthquake also contend with persistent aftershocks. Credit Narendra Shrestha (European Press Photo Agency).