Nepal Earthquake: Setting Up Emergency Response

Nepal Earthquake: Setting Up Emergency Response

Publication info

Posted
5/18/15
By
Emmanuel Lan Chun Yang

Emmanuel Lan Chun Yang is the Regional Emergency Coordinator for Asia Pacific. He was deployed as part of the emergency response team for the Nepal earthquake as Field Team Leader in the district of Gorkha where the epicenter of the earthquake was located. 

On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 28, just 3 days after the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Nepal, I arrived in Kathmandu from Bangkok where I’m based. By Wednesday morning I was already making my way to the district of Gorkha in western Nepal where the earthquake epicenter had been and where the scant information we were receiving said whole villages had been decimated and people were left with nothing.

I was leading a team of six people made up of experts in different disciplines including water/sanitation and security to try and cover all the potential needs. I made sure that we had a gender balanced team, which is critical for CARE, especially when talking to women and girls in the communities to find out their specific needs, which are often different or heightened in emergencies. One of our drivers was even a woman - quite unusual in Nepal - but very useful as she was able to help us with translation and supported the assessment teams on the ground.  

The aim of the trip was to set up a base for our emergency response and launch operations in the district. We had had patchy calls with some staff members already based in the area but it was unclear what, if any, structures were remaining in Gorkha town and we had no idea what we would find there. 

We packed enough dry food for everyone for two weeks, water purification tablets and tents and sleeping bags – preparing for every eventuality - and set off on the five hour drive to Gorkha. 

As team leader you have to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, arrange logistics and security in a very short timeframe. At this point I had no idea what would be needed. On the drive I was planning scenarios and already thinking how I would organize the team when we reached there. When you are setting up operations there are so many different things to do at the same time - you have to prioritise and delegate very quickly and people need to be very flexible with their tasks.

Arriving late afternoon, after negotiating winding mountain roads, we were surprised and relieved to find that much of the town of Gorkha remained intact and that our office there had survived the quake. We held a quick meeting with the team who were there to see what the situation was in the district and then headed straight to the local district headquarters to meet with government officials to see how CARE could fit in to the existing response and make sure we weren’t duplicating activities. 

What we quickly discovered was that many of the worst affected areas were unreachable - high in the hills in remote locations made even more inaccessible by the earthquake. Many of the roads had been destroyed during the quake and the resulting landslides. Getting aid to these people was going to be a serious challenge. We considered all kinds of options, including sending staff by foot up into the hills or even using donkeys to carry supplies up.

Getting information on how badly affected these areas had been was also a huge challenge - no one could access them to find out the extent of the damage, let alone to provide assistance. 

Once we had a basic idea of the situation, the next thing was to focus on a strategy. We knew we had a very short time to start distributing relief items so we needed to understand where we wanted to go, and who we wanted to target. All this had to be done with very limited information available. Past experience and having staff with knowledge of the area was indispensable for this and in helping to make the right decisions. 

The most important thing when setting up an emergency response is to move quickly and start distributing quickly. It can be hard to balance a quick response and at the same time make sure you do it right and reach the right people. We needed to identify the right location and move in there fast. Luckily some items arrived the same day by truck from CARE India so we were ready to go. 

The stark reality of the levels of devastation in villages around Gorkha really brought home exactly what it was I was here to do and the desperate situation of so many of the people. The pressure was on and within just 36 hours we were already carrying out our first distributions - a real achievement given all the circumstances. 

I’ve worked on a number of emergency responses over the years- both with CARE and other international organisations. All responses are different, even if there is a common cause. In this case it was the remote rural location that was unique. In some places people still had access to markets, while in others there was nothing. The way we were going to operate in these different types of areas would need to be completely different to provide the right kind of support in the right context. 

What has impressed me the most in this earthquake response is the level of motivation, commitment and energy of the staff here in Nepal. Despite having lived through the earthquakes themselves. All of the staff I have been working with have been affected in some way or other. If they didn’t lose family or friends then their houses have been damaged and all are still dealing with the shock and trauma of the quake. Despite all this they continue to work around the clock under difficult conditions with a smile on their face.

I am happy to say that now, going forward, we have a strategy in place and we know how we want to target people and what kind of assistance we want to bring to them. We have managed to work well with both local government and other humanitarian agencies and CARE is even co-leading the WASH cluster response for Gorkha district and advocating to include gender issues in our activities. 

Within just three weeks we have set up a well-functioning operations base from almost nothing. We are reaching people across over 3,000 square kilometres of challenging and difficult terrain. I feel privileged to say I have had a hand in bringing life-saving help to a devastated but hopeful people who, with our continuing support, can now begin the long and complicated task of rebuilding both their homes and their lives.

 

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