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Lessons learnt in Gujarat relevant in Nepal now

The best chance of rescuing people is within the first 72 hours.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi |
April 26, 2015 4:21:00 am
Over 450 casualties reported after the biggest earthquake in 80 years hits Nepal and neighbouring countries. The best chance of rescuing people is within the first 72 hours, writes Sushant Singh. (Source: AP)

As the flood of WhatsApp messages from fellow editors at The Indian Express about an earthquake appeared on my mobile screen today, it took my mind back to the Republic Day of 2001. Like today, even then, I was on the road and didn’t feel the earthquake. Unlike the roads of Delhi today, I was then in Rajasthan and distinctly remember a sudden bumpy ride on a newly carpeted highway. With an earthquake far away from the mind, it was only on reaching my destination that I came to know of a severe earthquake in Gujarat which measured 7.7 on the Richter scale.

Today’s earthquake in Nepal is 7.9, and because the Richter Scale is a logarithmic scale, it means that the intensity of today’s earthquake is more than twice that of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Twenty thousand people are estimated to have died in 2001. But Nepal is a sparsely populated area compared to Gujarat and initial estimates suggest that the death toll will be much lower. While fatalities might be lower, the damage and destruction – and the distress for those caught in it – will be of a similar magnitude. Imagine 12-13 mega tons of TNT explosive going off: that is the quantum of energy produced by an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude.

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Today I may be writing about the Nepal earthquake but in 2001, it was different. I was then in the army and my unit was one of the first ones to be moved to Bhuj after the earthquake. We started that afternoon and on entering Gujarat late in the evening, we saw the destruction first hand. At places, it seemed that someone had aerially bombed one village after another. The power supply was gone and the silence on the highway was eerie. We were directed to the town of Bhachau and its nearby villages.

The lessons learnt from Gujarat earthquake, both in rescue, relief and rehabilitation and for earthquake disaster mitigation, have held India in good stead since. The situation is bound to be no different in Nepal now. The civil administration had collapsed in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake but the army and the air force, based in Bhuj, stepped in despite the heavy damage suffered by them. The air force base at Bhuj became an important point for collection and provision of relief material and supplies and the air warriors there did a splendid job. An IAF logistics officer later told me that it took a lot of effort from them to convince their subordinates that for once, they could stop worrying about audits and relax their procedures for issuing items. I heard many stories of airmen who had lost their family members still reporting for duty so that the relief operations could continue 24X7.

Nepal does not have an air force but its Army Air Service will have to step up, along with the civil aviation authorities, to ensure that all the airbases in the area are available to be used by the network of donor national societies and emergency response units. The Nepalese Army has already moved in, and with the likely collapse of the civil administration following the earthquake, its soldiers will have to step in for the rescue operations. It is a painstaking process and notwithstanding the heartrending request from a weeping wife to first look for his husband buried in the ruins or from a young teenager begging you to first bring his parents out of the collapsed building, the teams have to operate methodically, refusing requests stoneheartedly.

The best chance of rescuing people is within the first 72 hours and every single additional hand, every single minute should be welcome. Even though I did find a stray dog come alive out of rubble after a week. It ran for a few yards, collapsed and died. Gujarat had a vibrant culture of socio-religious groups and community organizations which were of great help for the rescue teams. I don’t know about Nepal, but even in that tragedy, there were people in Gujarat who wanted to steal the valuables from the rubble or from the houses. Till the time police reactivates, the army, along with the local community volunteers, has to keep such miscreants at bay.

It is just not the miscreants who wish to go into the rubble. With every passing hour, every family wants to go back to its house to scavenge some more valuables. If it is gold and cash in the first hour, it comes down to utensils within 24 hours. With aftershocks that follow the earthquake for days afterwards, and considering the poor structural safety of the buildings, it remains a constant challenge to keep such people out. The aftershocks are also a challenge for rescue teams because your sensory perceptions are extra alert towards each vibration and no one wants to take a chance. After some time, soldiers don’t even say it. They just give you a meaningful look which says: did you feel it? Here comes another tremor.

The first 72 hours are just not about rescuing people buried under. It is also about saving lives by providing safe drinking water, toilets, food, shelter and emergency aid to people. To prevent any public health hazard, it becomes equally important to dispose off carcasses of stray animals and cremate the dead. Religious organizations — and Nepal would have a few committed ones like I saw in Gujarat — are of huge help in this particular activity.

Relief and rehabilitation follows rescue operations and foreign NGOs and expert teams had moved in Gujarat to build emergency hospitals, temporary shelters, toilets, community kitchens, relief camps, telecommunication networks, power backups and provide designs for new earthquake proof buildings.

Red Cross, Red Crescent, Oxfam, ReDR were some of the prominent ones among the 300 foreign NGOs which worked there. It is important that Nepal creates global awareness about Saturday’s tragedy so that these reputed international organizations move in – quickly and fully resourced.

One of the trickiest problems encountered in Gujarat was of unsafe buildings and real estate. People wanted their prime property back, to reconstruct new houses or to sell it off. It is easy to demolish single storied structures but partially damaged multistoried buildings provide their own challenge. We tried using cranes and heavy machinery to demolish them but it didn’t succeed. Eventually, we had to go for controlled use of low explosives to demolish these unsafe structures. Ensuring that the adjacent buildings remain safe while the unsafe building completely goes down in one instance was not easy. We had our own share of anxieties doing this for a few weeks but to see the huge public applause every time a multistoried building went to ground in seconds was a sight to behold.

Nepal may have some multistoried buildings like Gujarat but what it will never have is the Gujarati capacity to bounce back to do business. Within 72-96 hours of the earthquake, the first ones to restart their business were the illegal brewers of hooch. Not that I or my colleagues needed them, but the hooch brewers were the quickest to resume production, marketing and sales.

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