Saturday, 20 June 2015 13:32

Terra Infirma: Life after an earthquake

Written by Timothy Beyer
view from hotel rooftop bar
Photo: Timothy Beyer

View from the hotel rooftop bar

The devastating news of the Nepal earthquake this April was a shock to everyone around the world, destroying vast numbers of ancient temples, endangering millions and killing thousands. E&M author Timothy Beyer gives us a unique insight into the reality of the earthquake and its repercussions.

When the noise started outside the window, I idly wondered what such a big lorry could be doing in the narrow road leading to our office. When the rumbling became a shaking, my colleagues and I looked up as one; with a collective, silent "Oh sh**", we left the room and ran down the shuddering stairs and out of the building. 

This is not what you are meant to do in an earthquake. You are meant to hide under a table. If you do leave the building, you are advised to take all the obvious things, including the bright orange "go bag" filled with essentials. My colleagues and I did none of this. We just legged it, leaving behind go bags, phones and, in some cases, shoes. 

The sensation of the earth shaking violently underneath you is hard to convey: there are no easy comparisons. Like night following day, one thing you can usually depend on is that the ground will stay put; and it’s deeply unnerving when it doesn’t. For a few moments, your mind constricts in a way that most of us never experience, focusing on one goal: escape. 


a clock that stopped showing time of earthquake
Photo: Timothy Beyer

A clock that stopped, showing the time of the earthquake 

It was a new, flattened world that I expected to find after that extraordinary minute. But the neighbouring buildings were still up, and we reacted as we would to any significant shock: we got out our phones and went on Twitter. This is where the first news of earthquakes tends to appear; and out of the banality of an iPhone screen glared a figure: magnitude 7.8.   

I was in Kathmandu working for Adam Smith International, a development company, and we had recently spent a lot of time discussing the large, devastating earthquake that was due one of these years. We had fretfully eyed Kathmandu’s top-heavy buildings, conscious that it was likely to happen sooner or later. The idea was horrific, but still only a thought.

Now we knew: this was the big one. With most buildings now unsafe (even if still standing), we decided to head to a fairly shock-proof hotel and hole up there for the time being.

As we crossed the city, what struck me most was the sense of fragile normality amid the collapsed walls and hushed crowds: people who had been running doughnut stalls or mending roads before the earthquake were now back about their business. A lot of streets were empty, a lot of people silent. Some buildings had collapsed, leaving awful gaps like missing teeth. But it was far from the scene out of Mad Max that I had anticipated.

The city’s activity ebbed and flowed over the following days, while we set up our sleeping bags on the floor of first the hotel car park and then the lobby. For the international chain that the hotel belonged to, it seemed to be a point of honour to carry on as if nothing had happened. In spite of frequent aftershocks that sent guests scurrying outside, and the non-appearance of their replacements on shift, the staff worked thirty-six hours to keep service running as usual. There was something of the sinking Titanic, with its orchestra still playing, to this grand hotel where the lights still shone, the toilets still flushed, and the lavish meals were still served.

Meanwhile, the country outside suffered the mounting effects of a major earthquake. The power grid, water mains and phone network were shutting down. Hospitals were overwhelmed and under-supplied. Having started improbably low, the death toll began climbing fast. And because Kathmandu is impractically located in a bowl-shaped valley and served only by a small, rickety airport, the city faced a strong risk of being wholly cut off from the outside world – as many remote rural communities already were.

"When all the sway of earth shakes like a thing unfirm" [from Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act 1 Scene 3]

A changed man?

The main effect on my colleagues and me was uncertainty. We spent a lot of time speculating about what would happen to the airport and other infrastructure, and the viability of the tenuous hill roads as a potential exit route. Securing water, shelter and food, and not getting ill, were big concerns, and the sense of danger never entirely went away. 

neighbours taking advantage of power to charge phones
Photo: Timothy Beyer

Neighbours taking advantage of power to charge their phones

I found this constant state of alert challenging, but not exactly painful. At one point, I had to enter a seriously damaged building to retrieve some essentials. With deep cracks around the outside, it looked about as stable as a house of cards. Yet as I pounded up the stairs, I realised I did not mind the risk I was taking, because I knew it was necessary. In fact, I almost enjoyed it. It’s not likely to happen outside emergencies and survival situations, but there’s a particular fulfilment that comes with being so single-mindedly committed to a goal as part of a team: forgetting about yourself, and just thinking of the interests of the group, is a liberating experience. 

After a few days, we successfully negotiated the chaos of Kathmandu airport to catch our flights home. Now I’m back, I miss that camaraderie and sense of purpose. Otherwise life goes on, and besides the small chunks of Kathmandu rubble that occasionally come out of my boots, it feels no different from before. It’s usually expected that going through a natural disaster will give one a new perspective on life. But I don’t think I have learnt anything from the experience. 

Which perhaps makes sense. As a bunch of foreigners with access to money and a hotel that seemed almost eerily unaffected by the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the rest of the country, my companions and I were lucky. Ultimately, we had to deal with nothing worse than the possibility of ending up in the same precarious state as everyone else. 

If I have learnt anything, it is some sense of the suffering of a vast number of Nepalis. The first few days brought the immediate horror of people crushed or trapped under fallen buildings, but the effects of the earthquake are lingering and the misery is set to last, especially after the second earthquake on 12 May. 

You can donate to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies at https://www.ifrc.org/nepal-earthquake or directly to the Nepali Red Cross at https://www.ammado.com/nonprofit/155815.



Timothy Beyer studied International and European Politics at Edinburgh University and now works for Adam Smith International, a development company. He has lived in Luxembourg, France and the UK.




Last modified on Saturday, 20 June 2015 10:04

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