On April 25, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck central Nepal—the worst to hit the country in over 80 years. It caused widespread damage across the country, nearly destroyed entire villages, and triggered landslides and avalanches. The earthquake was followed by more than 100 aftershocks, including a magnitude 7.3 trembler on May 12.
I had lived and worked in Nepal for 18 years, establishing very close personal and professional ties during my time there. When I got first word of the earthquake, I immediately felt terror for the people and places I had come to love. Then, I went into response mode.
Within hours, I was in a U.S. Air Force C-17 on the way to Kathmandu, leading a 136-person Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) deployed by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance to coordinate the U.S. government’s response efforts.
Some of our work made front-page news, especially when our urban search-and-rescue teams assisted in two miraculous rescues: the first, a 15-year-old boy who was pulled from the rubble five days after the quake hit. The other involved a 41-year-old woman who was saved from a collapsed building 50 miles east of Kathmandu.
But in my opinion, the unsung heroes of this disaster were the Nepalese people, themselves, many of whom were able to play critical roles in their country’s response—all while dealing with a tremendous sense of loss.
More than a thousand people had the ability to save lives in their neighborhoods, communities and villages thanks to training and tools USAID has been providing for more than two decades.
Nepal sits on the boundary of two massive tectonic plates. Previous large-scale earthquakes occurred in 1833 and 1934, and we knew it would only be a matter of time before another catastrophic quake struck. While we can’t stop earthquakes from happening, we knew we could help people better prepare and respond to disasters.
Since 1998, USAID has supported the Program for the Enhancement of Emergency Response. This program helps Nepal’s disaster management agencies organize and conduct trainings on medical first response, collapsed structure search-and-rescue, and hospital preparedness for mass casualties following a disaster.
After taking one of these trainings, Dr. Pradeep Vaidya helped his hospital develop a disaster plan. As a result, Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Teaching Hospital fastened furniture to the walls, laminated windows, prepositioned supplies, and installed a seismic-resistant blood bank.
These efforts allowed the hospital to stay open right after the earthquake; its doctors treated 700 patients and performed more than 300 surgeries.
We’ve also been training communities on basic life support, light search and rescue, dead body management, and best practices on how to respond to multiple casualties through a program called Community Action for Disaster Response, which we support in partnership with the American Red Cross and the Nepal Red Cross Society.
Because of this training, 600 team members deployed to hard-hit areas after the April 25 earthquake to participate in search-and-rescue operations, provide first aid to the injured, and assist with damage assessments and distributions.
Finally, for more than 15 years, we’ve been building a qualified pool of engineers and technical experts through our partnership with the Kathmandu-based National Society for Earthquake Technology.
We trained people on how to conduct seismic risk assessments and develop earthquake preparedness plans. After the earthquake struck, our partner mobilized 400 earthquake damage inspectors and 450 volunteers who surveyed more than 126,000 structures to ensure they were safe.
At the same time, we also trained homeowners and masons on how to make buildings more earthquake resistant—work that still continues to this day.
While the April 25 earthquake caused significant damage, I’m proud that the preparedness investments we put in place prior to the disaster helped save lives. We now have a cadre of earthquake experts in the region with a depth of knowledge to make a difference in their communities. And these experts are grateful.
All during my time in Nepal, I had people come up to me and tell me amazing stories of how their training helped them save others. By my calculation, we trained about a thousand Nepalese who then went out as first responders after the earthquake.
These investments must continue. History has shown that another big earthquake will be coming, perhaps even worse than the April 25 disaster. Hopefully, these stories prove that if you equip people with the right tools and training, they can make a real difference.