2 Years Later – A Look Back at What Surviving a Natural Disaster Taught Us
Being in Kathmandu on April 25, 2015 was a travel experience we did not sign up for. Living through, and bearing witness to the mass destruction and loss of life caused by the 7.8 earthquake that rocked the region changed our lives, the lives of thousands of travelers, and all Nepalis’ lives forever. Surviving a natural disaster is part of us now. Whenever tragedy strikes, and the dust settles, it’s important to look back and take something positive from what occurred. Surviving a natural disaster forces you to do a lot of thinking, and shows you a perspective you’ve never seen before. Here are 12 lessons we learned that terrifying day and throughout our relief efforts in the weeks following.
12 Lessons From Surviving a Natural Disaster
1. There are things you simply cannot control.
With technology and the convenience of Western life we often forget that there are forces at work that do not consider our plans. A natural disaster has no problem reminding us of this.
2. People will do desperate things in desperate times.
For water, for food, for shelter – people will do whatever it takes to survive. Both in good and bad ways. You should be prepared to experience both.
3. There are basically 2 types of people in Emergencies: Those that look out for themselves and those who look out for others.
This became apparent, the second that ground started shaking – people either ran for safety or to protect others. A natural disaster forces your inner being to take over. You either get consumed by selfishness or selflessness. We experienced both ends of the spectrum as our relief organization had our lives threatened while being robbed of $1500. We also watched fellow travelers crashing at the American Embassy’s shelter hoarding blankets and food, while others had none. On the other hand, there were countless people spending all day everyday doing all they could to help. We didn’t know this about ourselves before surviving a natural disaster, but we quickly learned that we were the type of people wanting and willing to do anything we could to help others.
4. Third World Governments suck!
If you’ve traveled, you probably already know this, but witnessing it in an emergency, cut even deeper. No government is perfect, but we’re fortunate in the West that our governments provide opportunities to prosper. Many 3rd world country’s governments want only to stuff their own pockets and leave the lower classes to fend for themselves. The Nepali government made relief efforts not about who they could help, but how it could benefit them. They confiscated and turned away supplies, sent search and rescue teams home, and turned away all kinds of non-monetary foreign aid. You can’t stuff the US Marine Corps or medical assistance in your pockets. But money, you can hoard all you want. So, money is what they accepted.
5. We are so lucky in the west to have state-of-the-art medical facilities and relief efforts in times of disaster.
We have it all: money, resources, trained professionals. The list goes on. All that was at an unbelievable premium in the days after the quake. We watched people racing down streets carrying the injured. Upon arriving at the hospital the victims were placed in the filthy street, next to piles of dead bodies, where doctors and nurses tried their absolute best to help. Injured or not, everyone was screwed. There was no blood bank, water, food, shelter, information, heavy machinery, etc. It took days for relief organizations to mobilize and arrive in Nepal, in what would have been mere hours in a Western country. We really are very lucky!
6. Seeing, smelling, and hearing death, destruction, and loss, not just that day, but for weeks, will have a bold impact on your psyche.
You learn to be truly thankful that you and your loved ones are alive. You learn to appreciate basic necessities that you have taken for granted your entire life, like having a roof over your head and food to eat. After this jolt…every breath and step we took was a gift, and for a very long while it felt like that. Maybe it was the continuing massive aftershocks, or constantly being surrounded by ruin, but this appreciation for life came paired with a very truthful knowledge that it could have very easily been us. It can all be taken away – in a split second. It’s worn off a bit with time, but we often reflect and try to regain that perspective.
7. Children are what get us through loss.
They don’t understand the full scope of tragedy, so their spirits stay light. Time and time again we’d encounter families who had lost absolutely everything but each other. The parents looked like zombies. They were still processing everything, but as soon as their child would laugh or smile, the parents became human again. Maybe it’s the pure joy that children exude that infects the adults, or the reminder that they have to pick themselves up for their children’s sake. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Whatever it is, it’s undeniable – children are our saving grace.
8. Doing relief work is incredibly hard but unbelievably rewarding.
Every day for nearly 6 weeks we spent 12-16 hours a day doing anything we could to help those in need – in villages with over 90% destruction. It felt great to give something to people with nothing. Between road closures and villages located on top of mountains or in the bottom of canyons, it was not easy. People as young as 8 and as old as 80 would hike hours to receive our emergency relief packages – which consisted of rain-proof material for shelter and rice. We could not have offered something more basic, but these people could not have been more thankful. We didn’t understand a single word that each other spoke, but we didn’t have to. They said thank you with their eyes. Their look of relief as they strapped their bag of rice to their head for the return hike made all our efforts worth it.
9. There is a right and a wrong way to do relief work.
Your goals have to be clear and you have to understand the full ramifications of your presence. If you’re not careful, you can do more harm than good, and some things should be left to trained professionals. We were lucky to have a former FEMA worker in our group to teach us how to work with communities responsibly. For instance, we gave all our supplies to women, and each household got the exact same supplies. Giving men supplies could create a situation where they use them to gain power, perhaps coerce women to give them sexual favors in exchange for essentials like rice. Thus creating a whole new problem within an already hurting community. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
10. You will forge great friendships in the face of adversity.
The relief group we formed immediately after the quake was made up of fellow travelers and Nepalis that we will never forget. People who put their lives on hold, stayed when they could have left, and risked their own safety for a chance to give the little help we could provide. It was bravery and selflessness personified. Surviving a natural disaster (& countless hours of riding in the back of trucks) together built an unbreakable bond.
11. It’s amazing how little it actually takes to be happy.
When you look at a family who’s house has crumbled on top of all their belongings, livestock and livelihood…and to see them embrace, you realize that what truly matters in life are the people. We can get caught up in what we own…but what really matters is our friends and family. Surviving a natural disaster solidified this notion for us – love is all you need.
12. Surviving a natural disaster leaves psychological scars.
Extreme fear forms extreme sensitivity, and it’s hard to break free from. We felt the ground violently shake on April 25th, then again the next day, and again on May 12th, with constant aftershocks in between. It rewired us. We went from being able to sleep through anything, to shooting up in bed with the slightest wiggle. Even now, 2 years later, the feeling of a large truck driving past or someone walking by alerts us. Our logical selves do a good job of shutting the alert off, but not without thinking about Nepal. The slightest shaking of any kind now makes us think of how it felt in those scary moments of the earthquake, how crazy those next few days were, what Nepal was like after it collapsed upon itself, all the people we met, etc. That day stays with us, more than any other day in our lives.
Do you have a story about surviving a natural disaster?
Want to know more about our experiences in Nepal?
The Day of the Earthquake – 4/25/15: Living Through The Nepal Eathquake
The Day After the Earthquake – 4/26/15: Surviving Another Disaster
The 6 Weeks Following the Earthquake – Relief Work in Nepal: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
For more about the Nepal Earthquake(s) see Wikipedia or the United States Geological Survey