What do you do after a natural disaster?
Well, we stayed and did what we could to help.
We had just lived through two utterly terrifying days, riddled with earthquakes, big and small. There was no ignoring the death and destruction. There was no other options to consider. We were there and able with no deadline to get home. It only made sense for us to stay and help in anyway possible. So, for the next 6 weeks, we did just that and joined the relief work in Nepal. It was a life-changing experience that we both look back on with strong (and mixed) emotions. The work was hard, the days were long, and nothing came easy, but we provided some much needed immediate aid to thousands.
In the days right after the quake there was a lot of talk about how to help, but little action. There were so many people needing help, yet we felt like we were banging our heads against a wall. The Red Cross wasn’t even ready to start taking blood donations yet. We were having trouble finding a way to help on the ground, so we did the next best thing. We researched the best organization to fund for the earthquake relief, and decided on Sahayeta, a San Francisco based NGO with direct ties to Nepal. And so began our crowdfunding campaign. In the coming days we raised over $8,000 for Sahayeta. It was something, but we knew we could actually physically help too.
Our first couple of days after the earthquake were spent wandering the streets of Kathmandu searching for a way to help. We had given our names to relief organizations asking to be put to work. But no one was ready for volunteers yet. Nepalis were all still living in the parks and streets. No one was willing to move back inside, even if their home was still standing. We spent our time chatting with locals or touring their neighborhoods and learning their stories. Children wrangled us into playing games, which put smiles on their faces and in turn put smiles on their parents faces. It’s amazing how even in times of complete despair, a child’s laughter can make all the adults find hope again.
Back at our home base, The US Embassy’s America Club, we did all we could to keep the refugee camp clean and stocked. Lots of people were laying around doing nothing. They weren’t even cleaning up after themselves or changing the water cooler bottle when empty. It was hard to not get mad at other people’s selfish behavior, especially when we were trying so hard to find a way to help. But this was no time to turn on each other.
Something about being taken care of by the US Embassy and seeing how they had stepped up to take control of the situation was uplifting. I got a similar feeling watching Captain Phillips on the flight into Kathmandu just a few days prior. I was proud to be American – proud to see my government make sure its people were safe, and show compassion to those they had no obligation to help. American search and rescue teams and armed forces had arrived to share our tented home in the outfield. The US was among the first to offer their resources. It made me feel like somebody cared, and was going to protect and provide for us. It made us want to help that much more. We wanted to pay it forward and give the Nepali people that same sense of being taken care of.
Our ugly truth behind relief work in Nepal
Finally, we heard about a group of travelers that had banded together at a nearby hostel. We went to a meeting with nearly 80 people. We were all there to see how we could help. The meeting was led by the Nepali hostel owner and an American guy who had been living in Nepal, Matt. It was obvious that the leadership had different ideas on how help should be administered, which divided the rest of us into two factions. One faction wanted to pack a truck full of goodies like Santa’s sleigh, and throw supplies to whomever they encountered. The faction we sided with, wanted to proceed responsibly and with a clear plan. The only thing both sides could agree on was that they both wanted to help, but ‘how to help’ was a serious point of contention.
Attitudes and discussions grew heated through the course of the meeting, getting nowhere. When Matt, Kari & I, and our new friend Robert (a dutch guy who had been living in Nepal) arrived at the hostel the following morning, we were met with hostility. Suddenly a shouting match broke out. Guns were mentioned, our lives were threatened, and the $1,500 the group had collected was forcefully taken from our hands. I never would have thought that relief work in Nepal would turn into this.
At this point, we had survived three major earthquakes, countless aftershocks, and a hostile mugging – we were all pretty shaken. As if that’s not bad enough, according to some volunteers who joined that group, they took supplies to a village 45 minutes from Kathmandu (i.e. to the families of the hostel’s owner and manager). Sure, they had suffered some damage, but they had access to fresh water, their homes were livable, their fields were still producing food, and the stores in the area were filled with supplies. This village did not need help. This was plain and simple greed. Lesson learned. Selfishness becomes very prevalent in times of need, and relief work isn’t always pretty.
Our relief work in Nepal Begins
We cut ties with the other group and formed Nepal Grassroots Recovery (now operating as disasterhack.org). While some of us wandered the streets of Kathmandu asking for donations (mostly from travelers on their way out of the country), others got a website up and running, so we could start collecting donations from the western world. We met a local restaurant owner and his brother, Gumbir and Na-dil, who grew up in a remote village east of Kathmandu. They told us about the damage their village had endured. The area was remote and not yet receiving any sort of relief help. We sent someone to survey the area.
The villages had more than 90% of their homes destroyed. Homes caved in on people’s belongings as well as their stored food. We discussed how to provide immediate relief with the village elders. Of course homes, schools, and other structures were in need of rebuilding, but we were focused on what people needed right now. We agreed they needed food and shelter. So, it was time to get to work.
We had volunteers, some money, a clear goal, and the villages/people who needed help. Now, how in the hell were we going to make this happen? We got with some locals who would help us start sourcing supplies. Any sort of shelter was the hottest commodity in Nepal at the moment. So, tarps, tents, and even rope or duct tape was hard to find and extremely over-priced. We started looking into buying the materials back home and shipping them, but that wasn’t feasible. We needed to rethink it
This is Nepal we’re talking about! It only takes a short time here to learn that everybody knows a guy, who knows a guy who can get you a good price on whatever you need. Boom! Of course we knew someone with a fabric company. And, wouldn’t you know, he had all sorts of rainproof material, usually used for tents and raincoats, that he was willing to sell for very cheap. We sourced the material right there in Nepal. So, not only did we get what we needed, we also kept a Nepali business afloat through a time of complete economic shutdown.
Now, we needed a way to make this rainproof fabric suitable for shelter. We found some local seamstresses who’s work was completely halted by the earthquake. They were able to sew the material into sizes that could be used for temporary shelters. And, yet again, we were able to put our money directly into the hands of starving Nepalis desperate for work.
With the shelters taken care of, we now had to find a food supply. Easier said than done. With food stores spoiled, roads destroyed and public transport trying to recover, even the most basic items were hard to come by. Rice was a easy way to feed a lot of people for a long time, plus it was already a huge part of the villagers regular diet, so rice it was. We found a rice distributor, not far outside the affected villages. Yep, you guessed it. Just like our fabric guy and seamstresses, our rice guy was also desperate for our business. Every dollar we were spending was going directly back into the struggling Nepali economy.
Putting the Plan into Action
It was time to implement our plan. We had supplies, local translators, and even an ex-FEMA worker who taught us how to do deal with the communities responsibly. We chose a village for our first mission, and found a driver with a truck to get us and our supplies out there. That day, it was a long uncomfortable 7 hour drive. We saw far more destruction than Kathmandu had prepared us for. Complete hillsides were missing, entire villages flattened, dead livestock littered the rivers, mudslides covered the roads – this was indescribable wreckage.
Our plan for this day was a 2-pronged attack. Some of us distributed equal supplies to each household in the village of Phalamsangu, while others scouted the neighboring village of Ranitar to assess damage and collect numbers for our next mission. This would become our hamster wheel life over the next 6 weeks: scouting a village, collecting supplies, hauling those supplies out to the village, distributing those supplies, then returning to Kathmandu to begin it all over again.
In the field
There were good days and bad. Their were emotionally uplifting days and really depressing days. It was back-breaking, heart-wrenching, dirty, uplifting and joyous all at the same time. It was a roller coaster of sorts. Sometimes literally. At times, our truck couldn’t get up the steep dirt roads to the villages so we’d have to get out and push. Other days we’d have to cross our fingers and zoom over new mudslides, hoping our weight and vibrations didn’t send us down the canyon.
The corrupt government was confiscating supplies from non-registered relief groups, so the army or police would occasionally stop and harass us. We were registered, so as long as we could communicate that, we’d be fine. On other days the army or police would hop in the back of our truck to help. Sometimes we’d sweat all day through unrelenting sun. Other days we’d be doused in torrential downpours (remember, our daily commute was 5 hours each way in an uncovered truck-bed). Sometimes the villagers were disorderly, greedy, and overcome with fear and desperation. We often felt scared. Other days we’d be greeted with the warmest smiles and the most thankful eyes, reminding us that it was all absolutely worth it.
To keep our sanity and morale up, we started a ritual of stopping to get samosas and beers for the long truck-ride home. We’d talk about the mission or what was next on our to do list. But mostly, we shared wild stories, told inappropriate jokes, or sang at the top of our lungs – those were the only 5 hours we allotted to just be ourselves.
Everyone was working hard to help
Our seamstresses worked all day getting the next day’s supplies ready. Occasionally they’d need an extra day to catch up. We would use that day to get the word out to raise more money. We were doing interviews with local news affiliates, making videos, posting pictures, anything we could to bring in more money. It was nonstop. At first there were more than 20 of us involved, representing 10 countries. By the end of our relief work in Nepal, there were 6 of us still helping on the ground. Our relief work in Nepal was hard, both physically and mentally.
We hardly even noticed when nearly 2 weeks had gone by, and we were still sleeping on wood palettes under a tent. Our wardrobe consisted of the 2 t-shirts and 1 pair of pants we each bought, because our laundry had been lost in the quake. We had only taken a few chlorinated showers (they were pumping pool water into the bathrooms), and were surviving on space food (MREs provided by the US Embassy). We had completely stopped thinking about ourselves, and were totally OK with it.
In the end, we stayed to help for 6 weeks. We eventually moved out of our tent in the outfield of the America Club, into a $7 a night hotel. Then May 12th came. After nearly a month of “sturdy ground”, a 7.3 earthquake rocked Nepal. The earth urged us to move back outside, into a friend’s garden for the remainder of our stay. Nepal Grassroots Recovery raised thousands of dollars, employed locals, helped an orphanage build an emergency shelter, and best of all, provided emergency relief to thousands of families. The relief work in Nepal is not over. They will be rebuilding their homes, lives and villages for years to come. It was time for us to move on though. We hope to return to do more relief work in Nepal sometime soon.
Here’s a video we made halfway through our relief work in Nepal
Want to know more about our experiences living though the Nepal earthquake?
The Day of The Earthquake – 4/25/15: Living Through The Nepal Eathquake
The Day After The Earthquake – 4/26/15: Surviving Another Disaster
For more about the Nepal earthquake(s), check out The United States Geological Survey