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Villagers walk through the ruins of their village in the Sindhupalchowk district. Every home was destroyed in this community of 97 families; Photograph by David Darg

Aid Worker in Nepal: “Now Is the Calm Before the Storm”

David Darg’s work in Nepal was mainly focused in the Sindhupalchowk district, which is the area said to be hardest hit by the quake. He also spent several days working in Bhaktapur.

Every major earthquake has its own complex set of challenges. I’ve been leading relief efforts in the days following big quakes for years. Sichuan, China, in 2008. Haiti in 2010. And while each disaster’s needs have varied with geography, climate, and people, the relief efforts themselves–medical care, food, water, shelter–have had some logistical sense of order to them. Until Nepal.

Nepal’s quake had a number of unique elements to it, perhaps one of the only positive being its time and location. Given the magnitude of the disaster, the death toll and number of injuries have remained relatively low. The quake struck in the middle of the day with its epicenter in a rural mountain location comprised largely of farmers. So when the earthquake occurred, people weren’t in their homes. They were out in their fields, working, witnessing the destruction from a distance, as houses fell, structures crumbled, and their beautiful stepped farms decorated with stone walls and centuries of history collapsed. Had the quake occurred in the middle of the night, while families slept in their homes, or had its epicenter been in an urban center, like that of Haiti in 2010, the death toll and injuries would likely be significantly higher.

As devastating as the Haiti quake was, the logistics of responding were a piece of cake compared to what the aid community is confronted with in Nepal. Spread over vast distances with soaring mountain peaks, the Nepal earthquake scarred the entire region with landslides. The landslides took out roads, exposed the mountains’ fresh earth, destroyed food supplies, ceased any ability to farm, and made communities that were hard to reach at the best of times nearly impossible to access.

What’s worse is that monsoon season is coming in a matter of weeks. As the rain comes, those landslides will become mudslides, and with monsoons looming, Nepal is facing a potentially devastating explosion of disease and chronic illness.

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Women in Sindhupalchowk thank the Operation Blessing team for bringing them food and shelter supplies. Their village only became accessible six days after the quake; Photograph by David Darg

During the first few days of the response, as intel trickled in, we knew where the major affected areas were, but were acting on limited information. Each affected district is huge, made up of countless small towns and villages dotted in steep valleys, many only accessible on precarious roads littered with landslides. We’d carry out distribution of supplies to a devastated community, only to learn of another “across the river” or around the bend, where no supplies had reached. Coordinating relief efforts with local partners and the US-based charity, Operation Blessing, we mobilized the supplies most critical to these remote communities–in most cases, shelter, food, and water. In the first week, our team delivered tarps, over 18 tons of food, hygiene supplies, and clean water to six unreached communities.

On the 9th day after the quake, the Nepalese police had finally managed to restore a section of road, so we loaded a truck with six tons of food supplies and drove as far up the mountain as we could. It was slow going and frightening at times, our wheels nearing the edge of the road, leaving us staring straight down, over 1,000 feet into the valley below. The truck eventually got stuck, and we had to transfer the supplies into pickup trucks to reach the village on the mountaintop.

The villagers were relieved to see us arrive but visibly exhausted. They had lost everything–their food stores lay destroyed under piles of rubble where their homes stood. As families dug through the rubble, the dust hung heavy, so thick in the air I had to clean my camera lens every 30 minutes. The food supplies we had ferried up the mountain were a lifeline to the community, but they desperately needed more aid. Shelter was a priority. A huge clap of thunder made us look up the valley, monsoon rains were approaching.

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A man carries his granddaughter through the wreckage of his neighborhood in Bhkatapur; Photograph by David Darg

Now is the calm before the storm. Nepal has notoriously suffered from monsoon flooding and landslides in recent years, and if access is limited now, it will only get worse with the rains. As will disease and illness. Nepal is notorious for Cholera, and in this post-quake landscape, we have displaced peoples living in makeshift shelters, going to the bathroom anywhere. Flooding will contaminate drinking supplies with that raw sewage, Cholera can spread, chronic illnesses can get worse, and the country has the potential to suffer yet another catastrophic crisis.

It’s a mad rush to access these communities with aid supplies before monsoon season fully hits. They need shelter, clean water solutions, and food before this disaster gets even worse.