"There Are Different Kinds of Earthquakes"


IOM staff responding in Sindupolchowk after the 12 May earthquake in Nepal. © IOM 2015

By Paul Dillon

Kathmandu - There are earthquakes that deliver a single or series of mighty jolts; others cause the ground beneath your feet to vibrate and tremble and defy you to stand.

Today’s (12/5) earthquake was of a type I’m familiar with from Aceh, Indonesia, following the 2004 tsunami:  a sudden shudder powerful enough to knock you off your feet, followed by a series of long, violent sine-waves that cause the land around you to rise and fall like a ship on a concrete sea.

I was riding back from IOM’s Kathmandu airport warehouse through a residential neighborhood shortly before noon, when the colleague I was talking to on the phone began to scream: there were thuds and bangs and what sounded like someone gasping for air.

It was several seconds before I realized it wasn’t the potholed backstreets that were causing our 4x4 pick-up to convulse and shudder.

The telephone poles above swayed drunkenly. Thick black cables dipped to street level as we slowed in the trough of a wave and then, as the distance between the poles widened, snapped back like a bow strings.

The driver pulled us hard to the left, away from the closest building, the passenger side rolling up onto a berm surrounding a large playing field.

I bailed out of the car, grabbed my phone and took a couple of pictures as the ground heaved and bucked. I looked into the park where a group of gape-mouthed young teens stood transfixed, their cricket game interrupted.

My watch said 12:54.

I live in Indonesia, one of the most seismically active places on earth, the so-called Burning Ring of Fire, and I was in Banda Aceh when the 8.6 magnitude earthquake struck the island of Nias on March 28, 2005.

That one struck in the middle of the night, literally throwing me out of my bed. Grabbing go-bags we hit the street to watch in equal parts fascination and horror as the sine-waves flowed beneath the row of 200-year-old banyan trees that ran the length of the median opposite my house, rising a meter and a half above our heads before slowly dropping beneath our feet. It was absurd and terrifying - even funny. Your whole sense of your fixed world suddenly tossed on its head.

Today’s quake was like that, but not quite as intense. The streets filled rapidly as people poured out from the row of gaudily painted shop houses that climb to five-storeys about the field.

Grim-faced, barefoot women carried their children close, amid panicked screams and yells. Across the road two men charged into a building as it wobbled atop a wave. To my right, an older man staggered from a building half-naked, hair soaped, obviously fresh from a shower and collapsed on the ground, sobbing.

They say time expands in moments of high stress. Witnesses to earthquakes routinely exaggerate how long they last. To me it felt like the worst of it had passed in about 45 seconds; the IOM staffer driving my car figured five minutes. I learned later it had lasted a mere 22 seconds.

There was no visible damage to any of the structures around that park, but I’ve heard that several buildings collapsed in other parts of the city. I’ve seen nasty horizontal cracks across the corners of a modern seven-storey apartment building a short distance from IOM Nepal’s compound: no wise person is sleeping there tonight.

The situation outside the city appears far more dire. IOM colleagues in Sindhupalchok district, three hours from Kathmandu, report a dozen buildings collapsed near the camp where they are staying, killing at least 11 people. Dozens of injured are at being treated at the humanitarian base camp nearby. 

At Kathmandu airport US and Nepalese aircraft, including the V-22 Ospreys, unloaded the injured picked up from the countryside. A friend described many women and young children in the first wave of evacuations, triaged and stretchered out onto the tarmac by soldiers from both nations, with blood seeping through the bandages.

By midnight the government was reporting 46 fatalities in quake-affected areas and upwards of 1,100 people injured.

As the sun set over Kathmandu on Tuesday, many people, including most of IOM’s Nepalese staff moved into local parks, erecting bamboo and tarpaulin open-sided shelters that will keep off the night chill, but not torrential rain, should coal black clouds shot through with lightning descend upon Kathmandu tonight as they have the past three, dumping pre-monsoon rains on a scared and vulnerable city.

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Paul Dillon, IOM Nepal