It’s 1 am in the morning. Dogs are barking. I am super tired. Four weeks ago, in the wee hours of a Haitian Saturday morning while I was fending off insects and obsessively trying to get through the last pages of my book, an earthquake struck Nepal.
My phone lit up with the news, and a ping notified me of an email, which read: “This is a big one. Are you ready?” It was from Kit Miyamoto.
Ten days later, I was on the plane on a one-way ticket to Kathmandu. Miyamoto International and the nonprofit Miyamoto Relief, for which I work, dispatched a team of structural engineers to Nepal within 48 hours of the disaster.
We’re earthquake engineers and while others might only think about earthquakes when mega disasters happen, we spend our days talking about building resilience and working to convince our clients and partners to engineer buildings, particularly schools, to meet at least the minimum building code requirements – life safety – every day.
My first impression of Kathmandu is that the needs here are tremendous. Little colorful, makeshift tents dot Kathmandu city. Families, many with little children, are petrified of returning to their homes, where cracks line the walls like open wounds.
The earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, including two really big ones, have left scars on the city. Here and there you come across partially or fully collapsed buildings, surrounded by rubble. Buildings that still stand are lined with vertical, horizontal and sometimes diagonally crossed cracks.
I am scared to enter these buildings, even with a hard hat and a team of structural engineers by my side. Having responded to dozens of earthquakes, they inform me that many of the cracks are superficial and have not jeopardized the structural integrity of the buildings. I have lost count of the high number of aftershocks that have taken place since I arrived – and then a big one hits: magnitude 7.3. I’ll never forget the sound of a building collapsing in the near distance.
I carried a Nepalese girl out of the building I was in at the time. She was so scared she threw herself on me, slinging her arms and legs around me. I am not very tall by western standards, but here I can be likened to a giant.
The ancient homes we enter to assess for safety have these tiny little entry doors, and low hanging ceilings – not made for giants like me. These homes have been built over generations and, often times, are the only assets of these families. These buildings are their homes.
It breaks the hearts of our engineers to tell these families that their home is not safe to occupy; that they will need to find some other place to sleep – which often times means outdoors, on the street. Earthquake cracks expose broken brick walls posing falling hazards that can injure adults or kill kids. Or sometimes the walls have shifted or bend inwards or outwards, ready for collapse.
But our engineers also provide hope in these stressful times. Many of the damages can be repaired. Much of the damage is not as bad as it may seem and these homes are safe to re-enter. As Dr. Miyamoto says: “Our job here is to give the people confidence again.” Without technical knowledge, people are at a loss – helpless. We tell them 1) whether or not buildings are safe to enter, 2) if the damage can be repaired or 3) if the buildings are deemed irreparable.
When the 7.3-magnitude aftershock shook Nepal last Tuesday, the people who fled out of buildings, huddling together on the streets, were all on phones desperately trying to reach loved ones to let them know that they were safe, and to be assured that their loved ones have been saved. I cannot help but miss my own family tonight. I hope that they know how important they are to me, despite that I have not connected with them since arriving in Kathmandu.
Being part of a team that can provide direction and hope makes all the efforts (and sleeplessness) worth it. I admire the Nepalese people, who despite these immense challenges are able to smile.