Life & Style

Confronting the quake trauma

  • Are we better prepared for an earthquake in 2019?
- Ojaswi Shah, Kathmandu

Apr 26, 2019-

I moved to London for work in early 2017 and within the first month there was a regular office fire drill. As a part of the routine, the alarm sirens blared and everyone walked towards the nearest exit. I moved quickly, calmly and followed the crowd. But by the time I had reached the safe zone, I was visibly shaken and terrified--it was that moment when I first realised I had unaddressed trauma from the April 2015 earthquake.

On the day of the earthquake, I was with a research team in the mid-west Nepal. We were waiting for a person inside an office building. Having just received an earthquake response training few weeks back, I was aware of the building’s vulnerability. I spoke about it in casual terms with the office staff--but we both just laughed it off.

But only minutes later, we were all crouched down in the office as the ground beneath us was violently shaking. The earthquake continued for few seconds but it surely seemed like it had been going on for few minutes. Luckily for all of us, the building withstood the earthquake.  

Within the next hour, I got a call from another research team in far-west demanding that we travel back to Kathmandu. I decided that we should remain where we were, wrap up our work and meet in Nepalgunj the day after. From there, we could take a flight back to the capital.

It wasn’t easy convincing the other team amidst all the news, both fake and real--all I could do was request that we stop engaging on Facebook and YouTube, monitor the situation for the next few days and decide jointly when it would be safe to return. The most absurd fake news were probably doctored photos of Kathmandu landmarks and a liquefied stretch of road near the airport.

Finally, after five days, we landed in Kathmandu. The chaos of humanitarian response was palpable. It was difficult to get used to the new normal--withstanding aftershocks that continued to shake us and the screams that poured out on the streets each time there was an aftershock.

But for me, the second massive one in May 2015, with its epicentre in Dolakha, was more terrifying. Having witnessed a crack in the wall behind me which moved to the ceiling and then the opposite wall inside the office was horrifying, in addition to the first-hand view of the top floor of the government building next to us fall down in the backdrop of piercing bird cry calls.

Five months later, a blockade was imposed by India along the border crippling daily lives of many people in Nepal and resulting in one of the worst inflation that Nepal has seen--it seemed that we had hit rock-bottom. Acute shortages of fuel, medical supplies and food, prices were exorbitantly high. The combination of earthquake, blockade and violent unrests in the Tarai that broke out later in the summer of 2015 crippled the daily lives.

A year later in the summer of 2016, I was in Myanmar where I had to face yet another quake. There was a 6.8 magnitude earthquake close to Bagan with tremors felt in Yangon where I was based. None of us felt it at the hotel where we were situated. In Kathmandu, my parents were frantic and tried reaching me on phone which went unanswered as I was preoccupied. I saw the calls much later that evening and called back. They were obviously worried and called up every day thereafter to check on me. My parents had never reacted like that, they probably felt what I was yet to feel--a sense of fear and hopelessness.  

But after the fire drill in 2017, two years after my first experience with earthquake, I finally understood my parent’s predicament. After that day, each time I heard sirens blaring, or if there was a mini-crisis of sorts at work or home, there was a slightly increased momentum with my train of thoughts--I began speaking more and sometimes my conversations were not the most coherent.

Back home in Nepal, I felt another recurring aftershock and my immediate response was to check with my mother if it was an earthquake, her confirmation was swift and I proceeded to turn off the cooking gas cylinder, remove all electrical appliance plugs from power sockets and pace the hallway. It was clockwork then in 2015 and it was clockwork now in 2019--earthquake response and safety trainings have helped tremendously and that is something that has been my biggest takeaway in the past four years. We can’t accurately predict when another massive earthquake will hit us but we know it happens and will continue to do so.

Published: 27-04-2019 07:00

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