I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about earthquakes.
As we have all watched the devastation in Haiti over the past two weeks, it is hard to imagine the terrible destruction and chaos that has descended on this small (historically, politically, and environmentally) unlucky nation. The weekend before the quake I was re-reading a few of my favorite Edwidge Danticat books after enjoying her beautiful and sad memoir “Brother, I’m Dying” about her Haitian childhood. After immersing myself so completely in these stories about Haitian culture, history, and people, it made the photos from the news so much more vivid and horrifying. In fact, yesterday I read in a New Yorker piece that one of the characters from her memoir, her elder cousin Maxo, was crushed when his house collapsed upon him. My heart and sincere warm wishes go out to those affected by the quake.
Earthquakes take on a scary new reality when you know people from Nepal. The entire country is situated above the point on the earth’s surface where the Indo-Australian tectonic plate is actively being rammed beneath the Eurasian plate, causing, for millennia, the Himalayas to be thrusted ever higher into the sky.
Many parts of the South Asian region are prone to tremors. The only two times I have ever felt an earthquake in my life was during a six month period that I lived in North India. One earthquake was almost unnoticeable, I felt the earth shimmy while I sat on the stone steps of an old Jain temple. At first I thought I was feeling dizzy from dehydration until people from outside the temple told us what had happened. The second time the shaking woke me up in the middle of the night, although I was too confused from sleep to know what was happening. I didn’t put two and two together until later that morning when I read about the quake in the newspaper.
So when events like the major earthquake in Haiti, or the 2004 tsunami, create headlines across the globe, they rekindle the very real and possible fear in people that something like this could (and unfortunately probably will) happen in Nepal someday. My friend KS (who was in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami, but luckily not on the coast) watches the news and shakes her head, “Our country sits right above the faults. We are overdue for a big quake. It makes me so nervous.”
The last major earthquake to hit Nepal was in 1934, when almost 20,000 people were killed. Without many roads or infrastructure, it was difficult to get to outlying villages. Additionally, over 25% of residential homes in Nepal were lost and a number of great landmarks and national treasures were destroyed.
I was reminded of this when I traveled to Nepal for the first time. P’s family took me to Dharahara, a tall white tower built in 1832 by the prime minister Bhimsen Thapa for his niece Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari. He built Dharahara next to a similar tower that he had earlier built for himself which was eleven stories high (2 stories higher than Dharahara). The two towers survived a large earthquake in the 1830s, but I was told that Bhimsen’s tower was destroyed in the 1934 quake, leaving only two of the eleven stories behind as a reminder of everything that was shattered in 1934.
As with Haiti, many of the buildings in Kathmandu are made of concrete and cinder block, with very little “earthquake proof” reinforcement. Additionally, the population of the Kathmandu valley has literally exploded in the past decade due, in part, to villagers flocking to the city in the hopes of escaping the Maoists/army violence in the countryside. Since the KTM valley is pretty well defined topographically, the city doesn’t have a lot of room to expand outward. Thus people are claiming more space for themselves and their families by building upwards—now you sometimes find very skinny tall houses to save on space. A quake of significant magnitude has the potential to absolutely devastate the densely populated city.
Also similarly to Haiti, political turmoil, lack of current infrastructure, a small national airport with one landing strip, and few roads leading to current medical facilities could further complicate rescue efforts. At least Haiti, as an island, allowed medical ships from the US to medi-vac severely injured patience to overcrowded floating navy hospitals. Landlocked Nepal would have to fly victims to India or Pakistan, if anywhere at all.
Looking at the pictures in Haiti reminds us all how fragile and delicate life can be. A reminder that isn’t always pleasant to think about.