What would you do if you lived in a city where you faced the world's greatest risk of dying in a catastrophic earthquake?
I like to believe that I'm prepared. I have water, blankets, sleeping bags, a tent, dry food, a crow bar, shovel, charcoal and "go-bags" for each family member — hiking knapsacks filled with clothing, documents, rope and flashlights and stored in a one-room shed in my yard. My nine-year-old son knows the drill. "Drop, cover, hold," he says. (You're supposed to cover your head with anything you can grab – like a pillow — since the force of a major earthquake easily throws you to the ground, where you could be struck by falling objects.)
It's all because Kathmandu sits on a major fault line between the Indian and Eurasian landmasses, crunching into one another at a rate of about three-quarters of an inch a year. The country has regular quakes. Since moving here 18 months ago, we've had two that registered around 5 on the Richter scale — the earth swayed and rolled and felt as if I'd had several drinks too many. Geologic studies and increasing tectonic strain say Kathmandu is overdue for a major quake — that's 7-plus.
But most Kathmandu residents live in a mixture of denial and Karmic resignation, as do most of the 800,000 tourists who pass through each year unaware of the tremors underfoot. Combined with a Nepali government in gridlock and a massive not-to-any-code construction boom, it takes little imagination to realize the impact of a quake on this Himalayan city.
The predictions are chilling. Experts say than an 8.0 earthquake like the one that flattened Kathmandu in 1934 or hit Haiti in 2010 will kill up to 200,000 outright, injure 700,000 and render 1.5 million homeless. The airport will be crippled, half the bridges and schools will collapse, 95 percent of water mains will be broken, most hospitals will be heavily damaged, and road access to the valley will be cut off for weeks.
So we've got to be prepared. That's the only way, say disaster watchdogs, to reduce a potentially cataclysmic outcome.
In this context, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC) aims to help the government and its international development and emergency partners build before-and-after earthquake plans.
That's the job of Moira Reddick, known as the "earthquake lady." The title makes her uncomfortable, but her job is to coordinate the efforts of the NRRC, which aims to help the government and its various partners build before-and-after earthquake plans.
Reddick is a petite, short-haired redhead with a strong Scottish accent. Her resume includes post-disaster emergency assistance in a long list of conflicts and natural disasters, including Sudan, Somalia, Chechnya, drought in Asia, cyclones in India, earthquakes in Gujarat, Kashmir, and Haiti, and the 2004 tsunami.
She is an unusual disaster expert. She has no budget, no line authority and a made-up title. She is paid by the UK and managed by the UN. Her job is to build cohesiveness among government ministries and organizations. So she talks earthquakes eight hours a day — and spends a lot of time "seeing everybody's point of view."
"It does not have to be an 8 [on the Richter scale] for massive devastation in Kathmandu," Reddick explained. "A 6 will do. This will be worst than Haiti, I am sure of it. This will be a crisis that will shake the world's belief in its humanitarian system and its ability to respond."
In Kathmandu, an unplanned city of 2.5 million growing by 4 percent a year, it's easy to visualize an earthquake's potential devastation. The Kathmandu Valley is an ancient lake bed filled with clay and sediment, a "liquefaction zone" where earthquake shockwaves will reverberate intensively as though passing through a huge bowl of jello. Since 2009, at least 30,000 new concrete structures have been built in the valley, but very few follow building codes and most use poor-quality cement and bricks. In the past three years, to ease traffic on the city's labyrinthean roads, the government has aggressively widened about 125 miles of streets, often shearing off sections of buildings that encroached on the right-of-way, further weakening their structures. The medieval parts of Kathmandu and its twin city Patan are a warren of narrow lanes with ancient brick houses glued to modern thin, tall buildings, accessed through shoulder-high windowless tunnels that lead to hidden "bahas" or squares. "Even if you survive," says Reddick, "how will you get out of your neighborhood?"
Strengthening buildings, or "retro-fitting", is the only solution for the current stock. But it is expensive. It also requires assessing every individual structure.
The task is so overwhelming, it's hard to know where to start. Nepal is a regional role model for its ambitious efforts (with donor support) to retrofit schools, but only 280 have been retrofitted to date, against a target of 980.
While schools are retrofitted just enough to enable students to get out of their buildings, hospitals need to remain functional. So far, 60 hospitals have been assessed and 20 prioritized, but at most three will be strengthened in the next few years.
The government has also identified 80 open spaces to be used for temporary hospitals, logistics sites, food and water storage areas, military encampments and congregation centers for the displaced. The police and military are receiving specialized training, but a bill to set up a Disaster Risk Management Commission is stuck in parliament. Turf wars between ministries further complicate preparations.
"We are starting to build up capacity," explains Reddick. "But each one is hard labor."
In just 40 seconds, a major quake will destroy many buildings, and ensuing fires will fill the valley with a toxic cloud of dust. I think of earthquakes every day, especially at night and oddly enough in the shower (the thought of having to run outside naked and wet in winter cold or summer rains is highly unappealing). But I also realize I can't prepare for every scenario. Reddick, a mother of a six year-old, has go-bags in her office, car and home, as well as food, blankets and shelter for all the neighbors that might show up. "Most people think we are ridiculous," she says shrugging her shoulders. "The risk is growing exponentially. We are constantly running a race where the odds are against us. I have those moments when I walk up a staircase and I think: 'Not in this building, please!'"