In the recorded history of Nepal, the Gorkha Earthquake was one of the devastating quakes hitting the country. Nearly 82 years after the mega earthquake of 1934 CE, Nepal was heavily shaken by the recent M 7.6 earthquake on Saturday, 25th April, 2015 at 11:56 NST and a major aftershock of M 6.8 on Tuesday, 12th May, 2015 at 12:50 NST. With the epicenters located in Gorkha and Dolakha districts respectively, the massive tremors were significantly felt as far as in China, India and Bangladesh. The catastrophic earthquake and the following major aftershocks left around 9,000 dead, 23,000 injured and thousands homeless all over the country. The earthquakes affected almost one-third of the nation’s population in over 31 districts, out of which 14 were officially identified as the hardest hit.
As people were traumatized and completely shaken by the first impact of the destructive earthquake on Saturday, 25th April, they were even more scared of the continuous tremors of aftershocks. Frightened to enter their own houses, a huge number of people absorbed in fear were scattered out in the open. In the event of such chaos or probably even worse in the future, you may not have time to search for the critical supplies or go looking for them in shops. Amidst complete destruction, since the rescue or relief workers may not be on the scene for some time and it could be hours before you get help from outside your community, the need for an emergency kit arises. The kit basically is a collection of essential items you or your household may need to cope after a disaster of such magnitude. Make it simpler and call it a ‘Go Bag’ if you like.
More simplistically put, let’s recall the moments after the first tremor on 25th April 2015; what could be the critical items that we would need to spend a few nights out in the open? Although basic supplies required might be similar for all, there could be many different preferences or needs depending on the individual or the family. If you really think, you will realize that the ‘Go Bag’ is the most customizable emergency kit that we could build on our own. Ultimately, it is not about the shape, size or color of the bag but the contents, we think are critical and must be stored inside it.
Recalling the immediate moments after the major shaking of 25th April, Ms. Sita Shrestha a resident of Thankot, Chandragiri Municipality said “As soon as the shaking stopped, I took my son and daughter out of the house along with our Go-Bag”. She knew that Go-Bag was important but had never imagined that it could be so much useful under those chaotic circumstances. She further added “At the time, many items out of the Go-Bag were very useful such as radio, tarpaulin, blanket, soap, Dettol, medications, torch-light, tooth pastes and even playing cards”. She was happy that playing cards kept the young boys awake in the nights which was good for the safety of the area. “This single Go Bag, I had stored, had been so useful to many of us. I thought what if everyone had their own Go Bag?” asked Sita rhetorically.
Go-Bag: Points to ponder
First of all, maintaining a ‘Go Bag’ is not a rule rather a moral responsibility towards one’s own safety. Secondly, a disaster such as an earthquake can strike any time. Thirdly, this is about exercising one of the best known practices in the world to get prepared for a disaster that can create havoc in no time. People may argue that the concept is purely western and the luxury of a ‘Go Bag’ does not gel with our culture. You may ask “What good a ‘Go Bag’ alone could bring when my house just turned into rubble?” Of course you cannot save the world with a ‘Go Bag’ but it certainly can keep you safe and thus help save your family or neighbors in those critical hours of extreme need.
We need to understand the fact that ‘life-or-death’ situation is same everywhere irrespective of one’s culture or social background. In the event of turmoil, three seconds without hope, three minutes without air, three hours in extreme temperature, three days without water and three weeks without food are the acute conditions which can threaten anyone’s life no matter which corner of the world one belongs to. Therefore, in the event of a massive disaster such as the recent Gorkha earthquake, ‘Go Bag’ can really be a life-saver and thus tagging ‘Go Bag’ a mere luxury might just be a reflection of our own ignorance towards inevitable disasters that sometimes can kill us.
By now, it is a well-known fact that the shaking of earthquake itself does not injure rather the objects that the earthquake puts into motion are scary and harmful. Anything that can fall, move or break can be an earthquake hazard. If inside a building, upstairs and away from the exit door, “Drop, Cover and Hold On” (DCH). If outside or close to an exit door, find an open space outside and stay away from large falling objects. Imported from the west, although the DCH recipe may not exactly rhyme with our socio-cultural backdrop, the concept clearly holds its ground worldwide with scientifically researched facts.
Looking back into the past, we find that our forefathers responded to earthquakes by immediately dropping down and maintaining the duck-posture by pressing the ground with both hands. As big earthquakes strike after long intervals, the knowledge went into oblivion and was not appreciated enough by its own people. Mr. Hariman Singh Dangol, who lives nearby the renowned Nuwakot Palace in Nuwakot District, is an elderly local priest at the Bhairavi Temple close to the palace. Recalling the learnings from his old folks, Mr. Dangol actively demonstrated his earthquake-safe behavior that he applied inside the temple when the ground started shaking on that fateful day of the Gorkha Earthquake.
Not very long ago in the US, the space under the doorway was considered safer during an earthquake as adobe buildings would crumble, leaving only the doorways standing. Later, as the living standard of the people and the structural safety of the buildings progressed, the level of risk tolerance diminished greatly. Nowadays, when the building structures are built stronger, people are advised to stay away from the doorways to avoid the risk of jamming their fingers. Here, it is important to note that over a long period of time, as technology evolves, the risk and the safety behavior also changes or improves along with it. Looking forward in Nepalese context, as pursued by many earthquake prone countries around the globe, we could either use light materials to build our houses or make earthquake resistant structures to withstand earthquake shakings. Both are major preconditions which can set ground for successful DCH practice.
Manoj Tamang, a local resident of Laharepauwa VDC in Rasuwa District, mentioned that his younger brother was studying in the ground floor of a two-story house on the day of the Gorkha Earthquake. “He could run and go out but he chose to go under the bed during the earthquake; he learned this at his school” said Manoj painfully. On that day, Manoj lost his brother to the quake as the house collapsed and crushed the bed. From Bidur Municipality-3 in Nuwakot District, Ms. Samita Dangol, a local shopkeeper, revealed her brave story and how she was able to rescue her two younger sisters even after the two-story house collapsed miserably. “The two school girls saved their lives taking shelter under the bed on the 2nd floor. This wouldn’t be possible if the bed was fragile or box-type” said Samita convincingly.
DCH: Points to ponder
In the aftermath of the Gorkha Earthquake and the controversy around DCH practice, it is quite relevant to mention two critically salient factors that influence people to do what they do during an earthquake as far as DCH is concerned. Firstly, the process of knowledge dissemination and secondly, the human psychology while implementing the acquired knowledge.
While some were able to save their lives, It is unfortunate that many school children, had to lose their lives to one of the world’s best known practices during an earthquake i.e. DCH. People might be clear in their head about the literal meaning of DCH but do they really know why, where, when or under what other circumstances they should or should not perform it? In another words have people been taught DCH effectively? The action of DCH takes several factors into consideration such as the strength of building, infrastructures & non-structural items, the number of people inside the building or room, number of floors in the building, proximity of exit doors, etc. Spreading DCH information may be one part of the story while grasping or internalizing the same by the listeners or learners may be completely different story, as far as an effective teaching methodology is discussed. Somewhere it seems, the teachers are missing the opportunity to verify or evaluate the actual learning or understanding of people who are loaded with DCH information. It is quite possible that the spreading of instructions might got limited to mere informing rather than teaching in real sense.
Our state of psyche greatly influences our immediate actions when something happens to us all of a sudden. During a surprise event our subconscious mind is more reactive than our conscious mind such as jamming the car brakes when someone suddenly appears in front of our vehicle. In this regard, earthquake is no exception and can occur when we least expect it. This is the reason behind encouraging and conducting frequent earthquake drills in offices, organizations, factories and schools. After repeated practice drills, it is expected that earthquake safe behavior gets implanted into people’s subconscious so they would know exactly what to do when the ground really starts shaking next time.
Here, we should keep in mind that child psychology is different from that of adults. Children often think straight forward and take directions literally. Since young children need clear instructions to perform a task adequately, the DCH teaching methodology for this age group might be different than that for adults. Again, as discussed earlier, effective teaching would often include all three components; informing, learning as well as evaluating or verifying.
Even if we have the right knowledge, we might need customization time-to-time to suit our existing socio-economic environment. Although DCH methodology has numerous scientific theories and data to back it up internationally, in the coming days, we could sincerely direct our research to investigate the feasibility of DCH or such in our own soil. The outcome would then demonstrate the validity by developing suitable methodology to address the issues pertaining to our knowledge dissemination process, psychology of learning as well as infrastructures that surround us.
In future, we would need to devise better and more improved techniques of disaster preparedness to suit our social, cultural and economic conditionings we inherit. As we evolve in this direction, we might be able to think beyond ‘Go Bag’ or ‘DCH’, inventing more socially inclusive disaster preparedness model which would be able to address the needs of our elderly, children, differently abled and the community as a whole. However, in the meantime, we cannot afford to just sit there and disregard some good ideas just because it originated somewhere in the west and not in the east.
Shrestha, M.S. Risk Control, is a Public-Private Partnership - Specialist, 3PERM Project (Public-Private Partnership for Earthquake Risk Management at National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET)