A very lucky escape for us, but for many a total disaster.
|Calm before the storm. Dhaulagiri, 8172m, stands guard over, Panchase, one of the|
Baglung District villages where ICS have facilitated my workshops.
Running down an upcoming escalator, was not an experience I was expecting as I arrived in a Baglung hotel having spent three days giving ‘Livestock and Climate Change Resilient Soils’ workshops in five local rural communities. The final training had been arranged for the early morning, before farmers went out to their fields in the hilltop Dalit community of Panchase. During the previous couple of days we had experienced very unseasonal hail storms, accompanying heavy rain. As Annabel, the local ICS (International Citizen Service) Team Leader, and I returned to Baglung, the paths were muddy. Washing my feet was on my mind as we climbed the stairs of the six storey hotel where I had left a bag of gear a few days earlier. Land prices are very high here so any constructions tend to be tall and narrow. On the top floor we met a couple of other ICS staff members from another group in Baglung. They had just finished a meeting. Annabel ordered tea and I went to find somewhere to clean my feet. As the cold water splashed over them and the red soil whirled down the drain I thought of the return bus journey I was about to make hoping to get back to Besisahar late that evening. It would be good to see Jude again since prior to travelling west to this mountainous district for the workshops I’d been facilitating a presentation in Kathmandu for a couple of days.
With now spotlessly clean feet I wandered back to the tea room, meeting Annabel, as the building began to shake. The first reaction when that happens is not to escape, it is to take a split second as your senses realise what is happening, and then your brain kicks in with the likely consequences of being stuck on the top floor of a building whose construction had never been subject to the rigours of a western style building inspector, or construction standards. Then you escape!
Annabel and I looked each other in the eyes and I think we both just said ‘run down’, which we started to do, accompanied by our two VSO colleagues. That’s when the escalator experience kicked in, since although it can have only taken a few seconds to make that descent, 6 floors can feel like 26 when your life depends upon it. The flights of stairs seem endless and seem to rise up at you preventing that much desired arrival at the bottom. As we ran, the building rattled like someone was taking swipes at it with a wrecking ball and the windows popped open as their frames changed shape. A feeling of impending doom filled our minds and images of collapsing packs of concrete cards pushed us on.
Strangely, about half way down one of my fellow escapees slowed to a walk and as you would expect I urged her on. Another quirk of this particular building design is that the stairs continue down into the basement unaltered. Finding the right floor, to the unfamiliar, can be difficult when fleeing, but luckily I was accompanied by colleagues who knew where to stop descending and start to find the exit. Through the open door which now lay ahead the sounds of shouts and screams were coming back at us in a growing crescendo as we finally burst out into a narrow street. The noise of falling masonry to our right greeted us as we joined the fleeing masses whilst surrounding tall buildings continued to rattle and sway.
A few more encouraging calls to keep our group moving and we finally arrived at an open space, big enough to afford protection, should the entire town come down. Luckily after a few more seconds this earthquake, that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, came to an end. Baglung was largely still standing, but we had all been given a lesson in the strength of natural forces, whilst at the same time experiencing a lucky escape.
After making contact with the VSO emergency line the next call was to Jude who to my joy had also escaped injury.
Annabel was now efficiently contacting her team of young volunteers, who were also safe, so I made my way through the town to the bus park. Clutching bags and equipment, I dodged into open spaces as a couple of after shocks set the crowd on edge, I was hoping to catch a bus to Pokhara and onwards to Lamjung. Luckily, a bus driver who lived in Pokhara was about to leave and thinking that I would be safer away from Baglung’s narrow streets, I jumped aboard.
In the Himalayas roads are often bounded by mountainous scree clad slopes. This route was no exception. The road ahead was strewn with rocks which had rained down from their craggy resting places. Eventually our way became blocked by boulders, but such obstacles are everyday to the average Nepali and there were excavators already clearing a path. After a couple of hours delay we were on the move again passing what resembled fresh quarry blastings and some very unfortunate crushed lorries that had been caught in the landslip.
24 hours later and I was back in Besisahar. We’d had a lucky escape but many Nepali’s had been dealt a different hand. This part of Lamjung, has seen some structural damage to houses and 4 deaths, despite its proximity to the earthquakes epicenter. In the same district but further to the east, near to Gorkha, we have heard that entire villages have been destroyed with loss of life. On the silty soils of the Kathmandu valley, where building foundations are less secure, as after previous quakes, destruction has been widespread, and the human cost much greater. As no doubt you will have seen on your televisions.
Our first request for assistance came in yesterday from a VDC (Village Development Committee) that wanted help assessing the damage. Could we visit remote communities and take some photographic evidence of damaged buildings. Willingly we accepted and after securing the clearance from VSO Nepal, our team of three shouldered our bags and started the long climb to 5 hillside villages we had visited during happier times.
|Pangrekyu, the most remote village we visited to collect photographs where !7 houses were damaged. The only access is by foot.|
|Krishna our young Nepali, team member|
Krishna from the Global Action Nepal office, our Nepali speaker, accompanied Jude and I. Apart from communicating for us he was to explain that we were doing work for the VDC, and not the media. Weather conditions for our expedition started well but soon deteriorated as torrential rain made the going tough, but when you are to visit earthquake struck communities this became just another obstacle to overcome. Nine hours later we returned to Besisahar, tired but happy that we had gathered the required evidence.
What did we find? I estimate that 40% of housing stock has been damaged. Fallen gable ends, extensive cracking and ground subsidence were some of the things we witnessed, but we also met local people who demonstrated that all important Nepali trait of resilience.
|One positive - the stone is reusable during repair work.|
|Some houses had many cracks which could render them very unstable. Robin Gurung, helped with our work in Pangrekyu|
|Gable end damage was very common|
|Luckily no one was asleep at the time.|
Most people were out of their houses working which must have helped with reducing the loss of life and injuries.
|More gable end damage on two adjacent houses.|
|A house owner shelters under a traditional bamboo chata|
|One isolated property we visited.|
|The isolated house had gable end damage and severe wall cracking.|
|A member of the Sing family shows us a crack that extends from the top to bottom|
of his house and similarly on the back wall. Smoke from the internal fire pit
rises from the eves.
|The whole Sing family outside their isolated hillside home. Subsistence farmers, they grow maize, rice, daal, and vegetables.|
|The faces of the Sing brothers demonstrate the determination and stoicism that will be necessary to see them through the coming months|