Not Prepared Enough For Realities In Nepal

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The hand of a dead woman is seen as rescuers search through debris in Bhaktapur
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Suresh Parihar plays with his daughter Sandhya at a hospital in Kathmandu
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A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Bhaktapur
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Residents are evacuated via truck from Kathmandu, Nepal
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Soldiers and locals inspect buildings heavily damaged by the earthquake
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A woman cries while identifying the body of a relative in Bhaktapur
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People look at the debris of one of the oldest temples in Kathmandu after it suffered damage from the earthquake
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Members on India’s National Disaster Response Force look for survivors in Kathmandu
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Smoke from funeral pyres fills the air at the Pashupatinath temple on the banks of Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal
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Family members break down during the cremation of a loved one killed in the earthquake in Bhaktapur

In a tragic echo of the catastrophic events in Haiti in 2010, a powerful earthquake struck one of the poorest nations on Earth today. The latest estimates from seismologists put the magnitude at 7.9, which would actually makes it about 40% larger than the 7.8 currently being reported. That’s less than half the size of the previous major event nearby in 1934, which killed around 10,000 people.

Unfortunately, it is quite possible the number of dead in Kathmandu could rise to match it.

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Residents rescue items from the debris of houses that were damaged
Nepalese people rest in temporary shelters of an Army ground in Kathmandu, 2 days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal
Nepalese people rest in temporary shelters of an Army ground in Kathmandu, 2 days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal
A Nepalese woman prays at a ruined temple that was damaged
A Nepalese woman prays at a ruined temple that was damaged
A Nepalese volunteer and a member of the security forces carry tents for distribution on the outskirts of Kathmandu
A Nepalese volunteer and a member of the security forces carry tents for distribution on the outskirts of Kathmandu
A drone captured aerial shots of Kathmandu, Nepal, showing the extensive damage of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake
A drone captured aerial shots of Kathmandu, Nepal, showing the extensive damage of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake

We knew this disaster was coming eventually. Geophysicists have long monitored how fast the Earth’s plates are moving, and we know that the entire subcontinent of India is being driven slowly but surely underneath Nepal and Tibet at a speed of around 1.8 inches per year. It’s the reason Everest exists.

Rescue workers remove debris as they search for victims in Bhaktapur
Rescue workers remove debris as they search for victims in Bhaktapur
An elderly woman is helped to her home after being treated for her injuries
An elderly woman is helped to her home after being treated for her injuries
People try to free a man from the rubble in Kathmandu, Nepal. Cheers rose from the piles when people were found alive, but mostly bodies turned up.
Civilian rescuers carry a person on a stretcher
Civilian rescuers carry a person on a stretcher
People sleep on a street in Kathmandu. A seemingly endless series of aftershocks continued to roil the area, further traumatising survivors.
People sleep on a street in Kathmandu. A seemingly endless series of aftershocks continued to roil the area, further traumatising survivors.
Pedestrians walk past collapsed buildings
Pedestrians walk past collapsed buildings
Mount Everest base camp after it was ravaged by an avalanche triggered by the earthquake
Mount Everest base camp after it was ravaged by an avalanche triggered by the earthquake
Rescuers clear rubble in Kathmandu's Basantapur Drubar Square
Rescuers clear rubble in Kathmandu’s Basantapur Drubar Square
A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins
A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins
Dharahara, a tower dating back to 1832 that rose more than 60 meters (200 feet) and provided breathtaking views of Kathmandu and the surrounding Himalayas, collapsed in the earthquake
Dharahara, a tower dating back to 1832 that rose more than 60 meters (200 feet) and provided breathtaking views of Kathmandu and the surrounding Himalayas, collapsed in the earthquake
The hand of a statue is seen under debris in Basantapur Durbar Square
The hand of a statue is seen under debris in Basantapur Durbar Square

Over millions of years, the squeezing has crushed the Himalayas like a concertina, raising mountains to heights of several miles and triggering earthquakes on a regular basis from Pakistan to Burma. Saturday’s quake was neither unusual nor unexpected, although it was larger than most.

A Nepalese man and woman hold each other
A Nepalese man and woman hold each other
A victim of Nepal's earthquake lies in the debris of Dharahara after it collapsed
A victim of Nepal’s earthquake lies in the debris of Dharahara after it collapsed

In the 81 years since the 1934 Bihar earthquake, the land mass of India has been pushed about 12 feet into Nepal. Think of all that movement getting stored in a giant spring lying under Nepal. The spring is stuck on a broad, rough surface which we call a fault plane (a fault line is what we see when it emerges from the ground).

Rescuers look for victims under a collapsed building
Rescuers look for victims under a collapsed building
Volunteers carry a body recovered from the debris of a collapsed building in Kathmandu
Volunteers carry a body recovered from the debris of a collapsed building in Kathmandu
Another victim seen in the debris of the collapsed Dharahara
Another victim seen in the debris of the collapsed Dharahara
Emergency rescue workers carry a victim from Dharahara after the tower in Kathmandu collapsed
Emergency rescue workers carry a victim from Dharahara after the tower in Kathmandu collapsed
People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building in Kathmandu
People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building in Kathmandu

Sometimes, energy stored in the spring gets big enough to slip catastrophically, releasing all that pent-up strain and generating shaking strong enough to destroy buildings and kill people over a huge area. The bigger the area that slips, and the larger the pent-up energy, the greater the damage.

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A man walks past a collapsed temple at Basantapur Durbar Square
A man walks past a collapsed temple at Basantapur Durbar Square
Rescue workers clear debris
Rescue workers clear debris
People huddle together outside a hospital. Residents waiting for aftershocks to end.
People huddle together outside a hospital. Residents waiting for aftershocks to end.

Saturday’s slip took place over an area about 1,000 to 2,000 square miles over a zone spanning the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara in one direction, and almost the entire Himalaya mountain width in the other. A part of India slid about one to 10 feet northwards and underneath Nepal in a matter of seconds.

People search for survivors stuck under the rubble of a destroyed building
People search for survivors stuck under the rubble of a destroyed building
An injured child lies on the ground outside a hospital
An injured child lies on the ground outside a hospital

We have this kind of detailed data thanks to major advances in seismology over recent years. Using measurements of shaking recorded on seismometers scattered across the world and sent in near or real time to agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and to universities such as Columbia, we can infer the location and magnitude of a big earthquake very quickly.

Not just that: we can now estimate the pattern and speed of rapid sliding across its fault surface. What used to take months of careful academic study now takes minutes of computation.

People help with rescue efforts at the site of a collapse building
People help with rescue efforts at the site of a collapse building
An injured child receives treatment outside Medicare Hospital. Residents after a relentless series of aftershocks, have been remaining outdoors.
An injured child receives treatment outside Medicare Hospital. Residents after a relentless series of aftershocks, have been remaining outdoors.
The rubble of collapsed walls fills a street in Lalitpur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu
The rubble of collapsed walls fills a street in Lalitpur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu

In Haiti in 2010, although the earthquake was more than 20 times weaker than Saturday’s, well over 100,000 people are thought to have been killed around Port-au-Prince by the shaking and its after-effects. Yet despite some differences, the Nepal and Haiti earthquakes also share similarities — both geological events were known to be approaching, and both struck areas afflicted by widespread poverty, rapid increases in population in urban areas, uncoordinated changes in building infrastructure and lack of adherence to improved building codes.

About 1.45 million people live in Kathmandu, the majority in poorly constructed homes not designed to withstand the kind of shaking seen on Saturday. Nepal has a per capita income of around $1,350, only a notch above that of Haiti, and among the lowest in the world.

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Meeting building codes in new construction, or taking on expensive retrofitting, is way beyond the means of most. To make matters worse, the valley itself appears to focus the destructive shaking of earthquake waves.

Electrical power was cut to the capital after the quake
Electrical power was cut to the capital after the quake

Studies have long predicted that the Kathmandu area was due a magnitude-8 earthquake, or higher — one study predicted between 21,000 and 42,000 fatalities if a magnitude-8.1 earthquake had struck the area. (Fortunately, Saturday’s shaking was half that intensity).

Still, this catastrophe comes at a delicate time for Nepal as it emerges from a long-running civil war and its economy has been improving steadily. We have to hope that recovery from both can somehow take place despite the enormous challenges ahead.

 

This feature originally appeared in CNN.



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