Guest Post: Report from the Nepal Earthquake (by Matt Faherty)

An Earth Shattering Finale 

[I had received several posts from Matt in India since his last one, but hadn’t gotten the chance to post them here. Since then, he’d gone back to Nepal, where his mother and brother had gone to meet him. What follows below is his first-hand account of the earthquake in Nepal. We’d been joking for weeks about Matt’s just barely missing disaster on this trip. This time, it no longer seems funny.]

I am writing this post on a baseball field, under a tent within a compound which houses and supports American government personnel in Nepal. I arrived in Kathmandu from India the second time yesterday, April 24th. Earlier that day, my brother Tom and my mother arrived in Kathmandu as well. We have been together in Kathmandu for about 24 hours now, and our current top priority is to leave Nepal as soon as possible.

At 10 AM this morning, my mom, Tom, and I left our hotel, which happened to be adjacent to the infamous Alobar1000, and set out for Monkey Temple. I had already been to Monkey Temple, but for our first of three full days in Kathmandu, I decided to tag along with the others and re-run through a few big sights. To get to the temple we had to walk out of Thamel, our hotel’s district at the heart of the city, and make our way across a river to a hill overlooking the city on the Western end of Kathmandu. The walk takes about forty minutes and demonstrates the best Kathmandu has to offer: windy streets, dirt roads, old temples, and lots of hippies.

We arrived at the base of the hill by 11:15 AM. Monkey Temple is on top of the hill’s summit, and the only way to get there is to trudge up a hundred or so stone steps of increasing height. The hill was more crowded than last time I was there, with dozens of individuals slowly meandering their way up. As before, little stalls lined the stairs and the merchants harassed the poor tourists. Monkeys climbed trees, fences and small shrines, eating everything in their path and looking like adorable little furry humans.

Due to our slow pace (my mom and brother alleged jet lag), it took us thirty minutes to reach the peak. Right before getting to the top, we were stopped by a small ticket stand and each charged a relatively steep sum of 200 rupees to enter. We paid climbed the last few stairs to reveal the whole temple. At the center is a white structure which looks like an upside down, swirly cone. Surrounding the cone on four points are four white towers, roughly three stories high. Around the towers on two adjacent sides are a row of brick buildings which house a monastery and a couple of shrines. On the other two sides are a pair of two, square based, two-story brick structures which housed their own shrines, and a series of platforms jutting out from the hill-top which provide great views of Kathmandu. This local geography will be relevant momentarily.

Rather than examine the central structure, we took a left as we got to the summit and made our way over to one of the look-out points. Since we were facing east from the western end of the city, most of Kathmandu lay before us. At the city center we could see the Sundhara, a white lighthouse-like tower which I had climbed during my last visit. Adjacent to the tower is Basantapur, a collection of pagodas and large buildings which make up one of the main palaces for the now-defunct royal family of Nepal. Most of the buildings in the city are three to four stories tall, and look like well built shanties. Despite their shoddy appearance, Kathmandu’s architecture has color and charm, and looks nothing like the similar poor cities throughout Indian and China (my brother remarked that it looked vaguely like Rio de Janeiro, especially with the mountains in the distance).

As I turned away from the lookout point, I felt the first rumble. I don’t know if I heard it or felt it first, or if the two feelings were so closely aligned that I couldn’t differentiate between them. Either way, it was a low, deep bass that seemed to come from the city itself. At first, I briefly dismissed it as construction, despite how absurd it would be for construction to be large and loud enough to disturb this isolated temple.

Then the rumbling started to grow. Within five seconds of its start, it was clear that everyone was aware it. Most people stopped in their tracks, others gripped the railing or leaned against a nearby building. I stared at my feet.

The rumbling grew more. Within fifteen seconds of the start it took on a defined shape. The ground shook side to side. I stuck my arm out for support and landed against the white structure at the central buildings corners. Cries rang out around me. My mom and brother were somewhere behind me, but I didn’t know where. Everyone I could see was still frozen in place but now trying to stay on their feet.

The rumbling grew. Twenty seconds after the start of the rumbling, everyone began to move. People darted in different directions around me. They must have known more than me, because I tried to stay in place. By this point I had realized we were in an earthquake, but having never personally experienced one before I had no idea what to do, and everything was moving too fast for me to make any rational decisions. I leaned against the white building.

The rumbling grew. I was being jostled from side to side with every tremor. They seemed to come every few seconds. Debris began to fall around me. I didn’t have the time or stability to see where it was coming from but bricks were smashing on the ground behind and in front of me. I had to move. I had to get away from the buildings.

The rumbling grew. I stumbled forward, moving between the white building on my right and the square-based brick building to my left. I could hear screams and cracking buildings over the increasingly loud rumbling. A chunk of the white building not much smaller than myself fell out of the structure and landed five feet in front of me. I turned to my left and tripped alongside the brick building. When I got to the far end of it, as far as possible from the crumbling white structure, I crouched on the ground and put my arms over my head.

The rumbling grew. I briefly lifted my head and caught a glance of dozens of people crowding on a large platform in front of me. They were crowding near the railing of a platform jutting out from the summit, where under normal circumstances they could get another great view of the city. Currently it looked to be the furthest possible place on the entire hill-top away from another building. Everyone pushing against the far railing looked terrified, but they also looked safer than I was.

I still had no idea where my mom and brother were.

Through the violent side-to-side rocking, I pushed forward. A few other stragglers were still close to the central structure as I was, but they seemed to have the same idea I did, and were making their way for the summit edges. Using the railing, I managed my way down a short staircase onto the jutting platform. I stumbled over to the railing and looked back at the temple. All of the buildings were being rocked back and forth. The central structure seemed to be holding strong, but the white towers and the brick buildings were rapidly falling apart. Huge chunks had already been flung off and were collecting into rubble piles on the ground.

I was afraid that a piece of building might traverse the twenty feet from the temple area to where I was standing. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I looked over the railing away from the temple and saw only mountain side. A few individuals had jumped over and were hugging trees in the light forest and shrubs. I considered doing the same but it dawned on me that if the shaking got bad enough the very platform I was standing on might break off and slide down the hill, thereby crushing any people under it. That was probably not architecturally possible, but in the moment, I was ready to consider anything.

The rumbling grew. It reached its apex. I turned back to the temple complex and saw my mom and brother stumble down the same path I had taken. Behind them larger and larger chunks flew off the brick building and crashed in puffs of brown smoke mere feet behind them. The smoke clouds engulfed them as they ran over to the hopeful sanctuary which I and dozens of others crowded on. Behind the brick building, the white tower continued to struggle, until a handful of rapid and particularly intense tremors tipped the scales. This three story tower crumbled before my eyes in seconds. It looked like a controlled demolition.

I thought the whole place might come down. I thought the central dome might collapse on itself and the side buildings along with it. I thought Monkey Temple would be wiped off the map.

Then, in maybe ten seconds, the rumbling slowed, and then stopped.

I’m fuzzy on the timelines. My best guess is that the main quake lasted 1.5 to 2 minutes, but I can’t say for sure.

When it ended, I was standing beside my mom, my brother, and two dozen other terrified other individuals. We had to get off the hill-top as soon as possible, but we weren’t sure if it was safe to go near the buildings. Could an aftershock happen at any moment? However, there was no nearby exit, and the only exit besides the entrance was on the other side of the temple, so we went back the way we came.

Within seconds of the quake’s stopping, I pulled out my camera and began snapping everything in sight. We had a view of the entirety of Kathmandu in front of us and it did not look pretty. White smoke clouds rose out of particular clumps of buildings spread throughout the city. Even from the temple’s position of isolation I could hear a constant background of cries emanating from the city along with innumerable honking cars.

The area around the central structure was entirely covered with piles of rubble, mostly brick. About a quarter of the brick structure was gone and only the base and a jagged, broken wall remained of the nearest white tower. I’m not sure what happened to the other towers. A dozen individuals ran into a nearby monastery, possibly to save its artifacts, possibly to save its monks. Fortunately I didn’t see any casualties.

We quickly descended the stairs alongside dozens of others fleeing the temple. Half way down the hill we came to a clearing where the stairs are less steep and dotted with small stone shrines. The three of us went to a dirt area beside the staircase where others were standing and sitting. Within a few minutes, maybe 40 individuals had piled into the clearing. Some were crying while others seemed to be in shock. Nearly all were taking out cell phones and desperately trying to call someone, probably either the Nepali equivalent of 911, or a family member. Of course the phones were down due to the surge in use.

About five minutes after the first quake ended, we began to feel the after shocks. They came at decreasing intervals, until they settled into a range of about 10-15 minutes apart. These tremors were nowhere near as bad as the initial quake, but I’m sure they were still doing damage to the city. With every shock, a cry arose from the city, eerily reminiscent of the sound of a passing roller coaster in an amusement park, except the cries were fearful rather than joyful.

A Japanese man standing near us remarked that the earthquake was not over. He put his hand on the metal fence which surrounded his clearing and then advised us to stay where we were for a while. I touched the fence and felt it was still shaking.

With no buildings and only a handful of sturdy looking trees in the vicinity, we figured the clearing was an ideal place to get our bearings. There was a small gap in the trees through which we could see a chunk of the city. The individual white clouds throughout the city had merged into a general haze which further added to Kathmandu’s usual air pollution.

After ten minutes of looking out at the city, my brother noticed that he couldn’t find the Sundhara, the lighthouse-like building near the city center. I tried to find it and could not as well. We used our respective maps to try to coordinate its position, but the tower was nowhere in sight. It had fallen.

The Sundhara was probably ten stories tall, and (if I recall correctly) had been rebuilt 150 years ago after the old Sundhara had fallen during an earthquake. That means that the earthquake we just experienced had been strong enough to topple a 150 year old building designed to withstand earthquakes.

I remembered when I went up the Sundhara a month ago. There had been dozens of people standing on the platform wrapping around its top, plus dozens more inside. The earthquake had happened during mid-day on a Saturday. I’m sure it was crowded.

It was about that point that the magnitude of our situation began to dawn on us. A massive earthquake had just hit an impoverished country. Phones were off line. Electricity, plumbing and internet were also almost certainly compromised. The quake was so strong that it had destroyed century+ year old monuments. And here we were on the side of a hill with no idea where to go or what to do.

For the next hour we stayed in the clearing while we tried to figure out what to do. We were still experiencing aftershocks but at ever wider intervals, so it would likely be safe to go to the city soon. We couldn’t just sit on the side of the hill forever but it wasn’t clear where we should go.

Our objective was to find Internet access so that we could inform family in America that we were alive, but of course we didn’t have a data plan in Nepal and the Internet was likely down everywhere. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, where shabby 4-6 story buildings leaned on top of each other over narrow roads, and therefore was the single most dangerous place in all of Kathmandu. According to a bystander who managed to get his phone briefly working, the airport was closed.

I proposed the American Embassy. I figured the building was probably well-built, and equipped with Wifi and phones. In a worst case scenario, the Embassy could possibly even evacuate us from Nepal. At the very least the Embassy would tell us what the hell to do.

Unfortunately the American Embassy was on the opposite side of the city. The fastest route there was through Thamel, the city center, where our odds of getting crushed by a building were highest. Instead we opted to take a long route around the city center wherein we would travel along with flat river until we cut accross a more remote, and therefore smaller building-filled part of the city.

With images of 9/11 flashing through my mind, I advised my mom and brother to get masks for the walk (I had one from my last visit to Kathmandu). Given that we were far above the city, we didn’t actually know how much damage or carnage there was, but if there were collapsed buildings throughout the city there would be all manner of dust and debris in the air. Even if we managed to dodge the falling buildings, we didn’t want to die of mesothylioma or something in a few years anyway.

As we were preparing to leave, we bumped into a guy who seemed to know something about what was going on. He turned out to be a UNICEF employee based out of Burma who had come to Kathmandu for a few days on a training exercise. Now he was returning to his UNICEF camp to begin aid operations in his new disaster zone.

The first sentence out of UNICEF guy’s mouth was, “lots of people have died.” Then he explained that the next few days will probably be OK, then everything will go to shit soon afterwards. Given how awful Nepali infrastructure is at the best of time, it is surely in shambles now. The power is out, the water won’t work, and the local emergency services will be almost nonexistent. He advised us to stock up on food, water, and clothes as we tried to get out of Nepal as soon as possible. To that end, he concurred that the US Embassy was our best bet.

My mom noted that when a disaster like this occurs in America, the affected region is swiftly filled with helicopters and other emergency services. We didn’t see a helicopter until more than 40 minutes after the first shock. As we walked down the stairs to enter the city proper, we didn’t hear ambulance or fire engine sirens, we heard regular car horns and a dull background cry. We were in a Third World disaster zone.

We walked down the hill and set out for the American Embassy. We didn’t immediately see any collapsed buildings, but the streets were filled with people. They formed groups at every available clearing, ranging in size from a single family to over a hundred individuals. Older women and younger children were usually sitting down, while the men paced and tried their cell phones with little luck.

Every two or three blocks we would see a fallen building. Sometimes the foundations had collapsed, other times it was the walls, and in extreme cases, I couldn’t tell which part had given out. With most of the city built on bricks, huge piles of clay rubble formed alongside the roads. People gathered around the ruins. Some took pictures, others mourned.

The river area was flat, with a road on either side and only one or two story buildings along the roads. It was safe territory. We walked for thirty minutes, passing by dozens of groups huddled by the side of the road. Not all were mournful or even worried. Some of the younger individuals even seemed excited. Occasionally we weren’t even sure if the earthquake had been much of a disaster at all, but then we would pass by another collapsed building and see another hundred-man group parked at an intersection, and the devastation would become real again. More importantly, if this is what it was like on the safer city outskirts, how bad was it in the city center?

As we walked, we would still get hit by the occasional tremor. Whatever pedestrians accompanied us on the streets would sprint for the middle of the road, where we were least likely to get hit by debris. The earthquake was still not over but it was clearly subsiding. We hoped it would come to an end soon.

After walking for an hour and a half we came upon a main road which lead to the embassy. This street was packed with pedestrians walking in both directions. Some people were trying to find their respective embassies like we were, others were headed for the nearest hospital, and some were trying to find their own safe clearings.

The Thai Embassy is in a wooded area along a side street which branches out from the main road. Alongside the embassy lay a collapsed brick wall, roughly ten feet high and maybe 100 feet long. The entire wall had fallen over onto the street. This was the first of many fallen brick walls I would see on the day, and I no longer trust brick walls as a stable architectural creation.

While walking down the main road, I noticed that nearly all of the stores lining the street were closed. The gaps in the building normally occupied by shops were covered with metal sheets and padlocked. Oddly, I saw a few groups of people crowded around some closed stores and I heard a loud, sharp banging emanating from the group. As I got closer to one, I saw a young guy using a rock to smash a padlock on a pharmacy.

On this street was one of the main hospitals in the city. Through a driveway opening I could see a large courtyard packed with people milling about. Outside the hospital on the road was one of the few instances of organized Nepali government action I saw that day. About ten Nepali police officers were standing around and shouting at pedestrians and random cars to move away from the hospital entrance. As far as I could, tell they were superfluous since no one seemed to be hanging around the entrance for long anyway, but these men and women were still shouting angrily at the top of their lungs.

After thirty minutes on the main street, we finally arrived at the American Embassy. It’s a sturdy-looking, one or two story marble building behind a parking lot and a metal fence. We showed the guards our passports and made our way to a help desk outside. A few minutes later, we were sat down in an outside waiting area, along with about ten other Americans who arrived shortly after us, and an Embassy employee told us the situation.

The guy said the earthquake clocked at a 7.2 to 7.4 on the Richter Scale. It had been felt at least as far away as Delhi. Kathmandu was hit especially hard, and Thamel, where our hoetl was located, had been hit the worst, with numerous collapsed buildings. He took our passport information and promised to contact a family member (we chose an uncle) but there wasn’t much else they could do for us at the Embassy. Instead, we would have to walk towards Thamel to another US Embassy compound called the “American Club,” where we would be provided with some type of shelter.

Though we were already exhausted from walking, we set out for the American Club, which was an estimated hour away. We walked silently and didn’t see anything new along the way with one exception.

At an intersection there was yet another collapsed brick wall. Two police men armed with assault rifles were standing near the wall for some reason and a small crowd was gathered at one part taking pictures of something. I got closer and saw a shape on the ground behind the collapsed wall, covered in a white cloth. It was a dead body.

The American Club turned out to be a rather large compound right at the heart of the city. It’s basically a living space for the hundreds of US federal government employees who for some reason are staffed in Nepal. We flashed our passports again, and after going through a security checkpoint, proceeded inside.

We were shepherded to a baseball field filled with close to 100 individuals who on any other day would appear to be having a picnic. There were more than a dozen young children playing around with medicine balls, adults standing in circles talking, and even a table with snacks and drinks. We were told that we could hang out here for the time being, so we sat on the grass and took advantage of the free food.

An hour later, an Embassy employee asked us to gather around for an announcement. He said that if we felt no earthquake tremor for 24 hours, then it was officially over. Until that point, we were all welcome to stay here on the field. Dozens of US citizens and a few non-US citizens had already flocked here and set up mini camps. US government employees would be taken to the Embassy, but the rest of us were free to make use of this safe haven.

Unfortunately, there was also a good chance of rain, so everyone who was here would have to pile under a tent set up in the field. Fortunately, this is the American government we are talking about here so we got about as nice of an improvised set up as we could ask for. The Embassy delivered absurdly warm, fuzzy blankets by the van load. They gave us super-efficient mats to out on the ground that were allegedly water and cold proof. They couldn’t provide Wifi because the Internet was down everywhere but they did set up ample power strips for charging phones (and my camera). They even got us MRE rations (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner.

At one point, after we had already laid out our cozy pseudo-beds, the Embassy employee announced that if it did rain, the tents would not be sufficient to stop the ground beneath us from becoming soaked. So he invited us to get heavy wood palettes from a nearby storage area to sleep on top of. At the moment I’m opting out of the palette and hoping for the best.

Both my mom and the Embassy employee jokingly referred to us as “refugees,” and at the moment that seems pretty accurate. All of our luggage, except for what we carried on ourselves during the day, is still at our hotel, which may or may not still be standing. We are trapped in Nepal as long as the Kathmandu airport is down. Even if Nepal’s mountainside roads weren’t in shambles, we couldn’t take a bus out of the country to China or India since we don’t have visas. We managed to get one email out to my uncle and we are hoping he can work some magic to get us on a flight to Mumbai or Delhi relatively soon. If we ever do leave Nepal, we will just have to head back home, since all of Nepal seems to be in bad shape and tourist activity has certainly ground to a stand still.

Some people have managed to rig a radio or catch some bits of phone time and collect some information. We are now hearing that the earthquake was between a 7.8 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, which even I know is enormous. (As I write this at 10:12 PM, I am feeling the first tremor in about six hours.) The quake was felt from Bangladesh to Delhi, though the epicenter was Nepal, with Kathmandu getting the worst of it. We’ve heard that Mount Everest had a major avalanche, and it happens to be peak season for climbing. Worst of all, the death toll as of 7 PM was already up to 700, and that’s in the major cities alone.*

About an hour after we had all settled into out comfortable blankets under the tent, and some people had managed to use their phones, I heard a weeping from the corner. I looked up and saw a girl, probably a traveler in her mid to late 20s, kneeling with her hands on her face. After a moment she stood up and muffled her cries into a friend as they embraced. She seemed to be trying to hold back her tears but clearly couldn’t, even as she squeezed her friend with all her might. Nobody had actually heard what happened, but it was obvious.

This is an odd end to a crazy trip. I feel bad for my mom and brother for not being able to see much of Nepal. It’s a beautiful country well worth visiting. I’m guessing I’ll be home within four or five days, though with all of the people trying to leave Nepal right now, I could be here for weeks.

*Irfan: As of April 26, 7 pm EST, the estimated death toll had reached 2400.

Postscript, April 26, 2015 (Irfan): More first-hand accounts of the earthquake, as reported in The New York Times.

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Report from the Nepal Earthquake (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Pingback: Matt Faherty in Nepal: A Report from Kathmandu | Khawaja's CORE 350 Blog

  2. Matt,

    Though this is hardly your highest priority right now, I can’t help noting an interesting discrepancy between your reporting and that of Donatella Lorch, a freelance writer reporting from Kathmandu for The New York Times. (She was in Patan when the earthquake hit.) Here’s what she says about the attitudes of the people she encountered in and around the disaster site:

    Neighbors were helping neighbors. Those with motorcycles were ferrying cheap plastic canvas for tents from the shops that remained open. Many people stopped us and asked if we needed food or water. Several invited us to spend the night with them.

    This is why I love Nepal. People here help one another because they know the government often cannot. They reach out to one another, and they persevere. They open their shops, because what else can one do when the world is upside down?

    Whereas this is what you report:

    While walking down the main road, I noticed that nearly all of the stores lining the street were closed. The gaps in the building normally occupied by shops were covered with metal sheets and padlocked. Oddly, I saw a few groups of people crowded around some closed stores and I heard a loud, sharp banging emanating from the group. As I got closer to one, I saw a young guy using a rock to smash a padlock on a pharmacy.

    They aren’t literally contrary reports, of course. You both equally could have seen what you saw; you just happened to encounter different people at different times. But the emphases are interestingly different. She reports on people helping each other; you report on a case of looting. She suggests that the shops are mostly open; you say that they’re mostly closed. You confine your claim to the particulars of a single event; she uses the single event to generalize beyond it to the culture of Nepal as such. What interests me is what explains these differences in emphasis, and the epistemological significance of the sort of cultural generalizations she makes (and that you’ve made in other parts of your series here).

    Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time. For now, you all just need to get the hell out of there. If you need any sort of help I can give, email me, and I’ll see what I can do.

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    • Here’s another example of the same approach as the one I mentioned in the Donatella Lorch article, this time expressed from an anarchist perspective:

      So, what can be done? What can be done to close the wealth gap? What steps can be taken to ensure that the impoverished do not continue to be the hardest hit by disaster?

      The answer may lie behind altruistic social forces in the region. In an interview with the Associated Press, a local talks of his frustration with the government, stating: “Only the other villagers who have also lost their homes are helping me. But we get nothing from the government.” In the wake of calamity there is no mass violence, no survival of the fittest mentality, but instead a beautiful mutualism. Altruism is alive and well, a part of human nature.

      The Nepalese are huddling together at night to keep warm, sharing blankets, food, water and more. Scholarly research shows such selfless behavior is common after disaster. Often, it is the political authorities who are selfish. Fearing anarchy, power structures often work against altruistic behavior.

      Never the less, the human condition prevails. In the wake of disaster there is always hope, generosity and solidarity. The basic libertarian principle of mutual aid shines through.

      How can anyone blogging in the United States know that there is “no survival of the fittest mentality” being expressed by people in remote mountain villages in Nepal–or for that matter, even in unreported-on neighborhoods of cities like Kathmandu? And what hope of survival would mutual aid efforts have in this particular case if deprived of government assistance?

      I don’t dispute that many Nepalis are relying on peaceful mutualism, or that in the wake of disaster there is hope, generosity, and solidarity. There’s also likely to be despair, stinginess, and looting. I don’t see what useful purpose is accomplished by projecting (or inferring) moralistic or ideological lessons on a set of distant and essentially inaccessible facts. But people seem to feel the need to do it.

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      • I don’t have too much to say about the anarchist article, except that it uses a common anarchist rhetorical technique which I don’t like. Anarchists like to say that everything which isn’t the government falls under the purview of anarchy. So every charitable Nepali who shares his blanket without being coerced into doing so by the government is an example of the success of anarchy. I don’t buy it, but to explain why I would have to go into a much larger discussion on what anarchy is and if it is even conceivable.

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  3. Pingback: Escape from Kathmandu | Policy of Truth

  4. Interesting discrepancy between my report and Donatella’s. I can think of a couple of notes about our differences.

    First, we just saw different things. I did not see any injured people aside from a two or three individuals with bandages at the US embassy, and one dead person. The main reason I didn’t see much carnage is because we purposefully avoided the worst hit parts of the city. Another big quake could hit at any moment so we avoided the regions of the city with tall or shoddily built buildings. As a result, with the possible exception of the monastery at Monkey Temple, we didn’t see any Nepalis digging through rubble or transporting each other on motorcycles.

    Though I did hear of a woman who paid $15 to take a 20 minute ride to the airport from a random car. Normally that same drive would cost $3-5, but I can’t fault an entrepreneur for using surge pricing.

    Second, there’s an interesting conflict between “local” and “big picture” information in a disaster zone. In my account I tried to convey the fact that we never knew what was going on. After the initial quake, my brother and mother didn’t think we had experienced that big of an earthquake (he guessed 6-6.5 Richter), and my brother estimated only about 100 people had died (like virtually everyone, he has no specific expertise on disaster speculation). We didn’t know whether we could or should leave the city immediately, we even floated the idea of leaving Kathmandu for Pohkara 90 KM away. I guessed that we couldn’t reach Pohkara because the mountainside Nepali roads were likely knocked out of commission, but I thought it still might have been possible.

    So on the ground in one corner of Kathmandu, we knew nothing about the big picture. However, we did know the extent of damages at Monkey Temple, the White Tower, and had a decent guess about the palace. Though we avoided the worst hit parts of the city, we were able to monitor a lot of people’s behavior. We noted the flows of traffic in certain parts of cities, the differences between activity by region (poor people huddled in their yards, rich people headed for the embassies, hospitals, or police/military outposts). We picked up on a lot of small details which definitely didn’t amount to a “big picture” but are notable in their own right.

    Third, I agree with her assertion that the government was useless. The police and ample military personnel pretty much stood around and did nothing. I didn’t see them helping people or ordering traffic. Like most poor countries, the government is pretty much a glorified mafia that no one trusts.

    Fourth, aside from the lock smashing, I didn’t see any looting. However, I did hear reports in the embassy of looters targeting homes in the city’s wealthy districts. There were a few Americans in our compound who lived in nice houses in the affluent part of the city who were terrified of potential looting, and I’m pretty sure some of them left the compound on the second night to defend their homes (they were told by an American embassy employee that the looters were avoiding occupied homes).

    Fifth, I don’t Donatella Lorch, but I am always weary of rosy portrayals of poor countries by Westerners. The discrepancy between what I saw during this trip and what I’ve always heard about these countries is so vast that I am more convinced than ever that multiculturalism is a tremendous force in Western evaluations of the 3rd world. This isn’t to say that there weren’t nice Nepali people helping each other out after the earthquake, but a knee-jerk excuse to glorify impoverished countries may have caused Donatella to immediately extrapolate one instance to a common trend. I have no idea if it was.

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    • Here are two interesting confirmations of what you say in that comment from this morning’s New York Times. They’re both from a Q&A piece by Ellen Barry, called “A View from Nepal: Loss, Destruction, and Kindness.”

      Here’s a comment on selectivity of reporting:

      Damage in Katmandu

      Q. Beth Jones: Is the Tibet Guest House in Katmandu still standing?

      A. I don’t know. You should write to them directly! But it is remarkable, when you drive around Katmandu, how much of the city remained intact. Footage shown on television can sometimes give you a distorted sense of the damage.

      She doesn’t add that footage shown in The New York Times gives you the same distorted sense! They seem systematically to have picked out the worst damage in Nepal, photographed it, and selected it for publication. But one great merit of your “overhead” shots from the hillside is that they show that most of Kathmandu is in fact in tact.

      This passage is relevant to romanticization:

      International response

      Q. Amit Pradhan: The international response has been overwhelming. I thank you on behalf of my people.

      A. I am also moved by the international support for Nepal over the last week; one reason I like working for newspapers is that, at times like this, you discover how generous your readers are.

      Please don’t thank me! While reporting last week, I was frequently struck by the kindness of ordinary Nepalis. Tom Fuller, who was hiking through flattened villages in Gorkha, noted that he would often be examining houses that were totally destroyed and that the owners or residents would offer him tea. That is Nepal in a nutshell.

      How can kindness and moral rectitude be “Nepal in a nutshell” if the explanation for the widespread damage in Nepal is the systematic, decades-long corruption of the regulatory process? On the one hand, we’re being told: “ordinary” Nepals are absolutely wonderful. On the other hand, we’re being told that “bribery, lax law enforcement, and lack of land use controls have left many buildings vulnerable to seismic damage,” and that profit-seeking developers have victimized home-buyers who themselves have wanted to look the other way.

      The problem is that the two groups of Nepalis overlap. It’s not as though the wonderful Nepalis helping one another belong to a class of Nepalis totally distinct from the ones who pay bribes, build defective buildings, buy defective buildings, fail to enforce the building codes, and suborn the subversion of the buildings codes. So the standard story we’re being told is not entirely coherent–and thus, not entirely believable. What these reporters have failed to do is to make explicit that both sets of facts can be true, but (by their own account) it’s the second, more morally problematic facts that are explanatory of the widespread death and devastation in the country. The explanation for that journalistic failure is a failure of objectivity, and it’s one of the occupational hazards of being too close to the action for too long.

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  5. On the other hand, I do have one pro-libertarian complaint to make about the coverage of the earthquake.

    The following is a quote from a Telegraph article entitled, “Nepal Quake was Nightmare Waiting to Happen” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/mounteverest/11564009/Nepal-earthquake-experts-knew-disaster-was-coming.html

    “The combination of ultra-high population densities, lax building regulations and rickety concrete construction has long led scientists to fear that a big quake in Kathmandu would kill tens of thousands of people.”

    This same sentiment was found in every single article on the earthquake that I read the day after the event, and three days later.

    The problem is that all three of these factors are effects, not causes. The underlying cause is poverty. There are plenty of places in the world with high (and higher) population densities that are routinely hit by earthquakes and don’t cause thousands of deaths. Japan is the obvious example, with 200 million people packed into a mountainous region not much bigger than California.

    This statement packs a lot of implicit and completely invalid assumptions into one small assertion. Here is how I read it.

    1. Nepal has a lot of people who live in an earthquake prone area.
    2. Therefore Nepal should build buildings capable of withstanding earthquakes.
    3. The only way to get Nepali people to build buildings strong enough to withstand earthquakes is to use the government to set standards which the population must be forced to abide by.
    4. The Nepali government’s building standards are not high enough (or perhaps not enforced well enough) to make people build buildings which can withstand earthquakes.
    5. Therefore, Nepal is filled with badly constructed buildings which will topple when an earthquake comes.

    So apparently Nepali people are too dumb or short sighted to build adequately strong buildings. An American Embassy worker I talked to actually claimed that the Nepali government actually has lots of building regulations, though they aren’t really enforced. I don’t know if either claim is true (though I would assume the second one certainly is) because I haven’t done the research to verify them.

    However, I do assume that all Nepali people aren’t too dumb or short sighted to prepare their homes and businesses for earthquakes. A vastly more likely explanation for why Nepali buildings are badly constructed is simply because Nepali people are poor and can’t afford the extra cost of building reinforcement.

    Nepal isn’t prepared for earthquakes while Japan is, Bangladesh isn’t prepared for flooding while the Netherlands is, Subsaharan Africa isn’t prepared for bad harvests while America is. The common denominator is poverty versuses affluence, not the level of government regulation.

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    • I agree with your general point, that the basic underlying variable is poverty versus affluence. But your more specific point about government regulation ignores the fact that Japan’s relative safety was not just a function of wealth, but a function of wealth and government mandates. The same thing is true of California after the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 and 1989. (I don’t know about Managua, but I’d be interested to find out. Managua was hit by a huge earthquake in 1972.)

      I think your claim (3) is somewhat misleading, because I have a different view of regulation than most libertarians do. I don’t think that building codes are, or must be, a case of initiated force.

      Take commercial buildings, buildings where the public is invited in to transact business. At some level, I would say that consenting to enter such a building is consenting to enter a building in conformity with some kind of building code. To take the most obvious case: if X stealthily invites Y into a collapsing structure, or one that’s on fire, and Y “consensually” enters and dies, I’d say X has initiated force against Y. Something similar is true of a structurally unsound building. When Y consents to enter a building, unless he’s informed that the building is unsound, he’s justified in regarding his consent as consent to enter a sound building. It then becomes a difficult/interesting issue whether the definition of structural soundness in an earthquake-prone area includes being earthquake resistant. I’m inclined to think it does, but that’s a difficult issue.

      If that’s right, a building code is no different from the commercial code that regulates commercial transactions, and neither of the two (in my opinion) is force-initiating. After all, no one literally signs a contract when they walk into a store that says, “If I take an item from the shelf, I will pay for it at the counter according the price listed on the sticker.” All of that is implicit. But contrary to what a lot of anarchists seem to think, implicit consent is not non-consent. It can be as binding as explicit consent. No one could defend themselves from a charge of theft by saying, “Well I took the item off the shelf and left the store without paying because I never signed a contract saying that I would pay.” Walking into the store is the implicit contract that requires you to pay. But walking into the store is also the implicit contract that requires the owner to have a structurally safe building. A builder or owner couldn’t defend himself against a building collapse by saying, “Hey, I never signed a contract with you saying that the building would stay standing.”

      Implicitness is the final frontier of a lot of philosophy, from epistemology (“implicit knowledge”), to ethics (“an implicit choice”) to political philosophy (“implicit consent”).

      Things may be different in the residential market, where the would-be owner is transacting more specifically with a builder for the specifications of the building. But I don’t think it’s that different. To use a hifallutin example, if I say “I want hardwood floors,” it’s implicit in that that the wood isn’t rotten. Etc. Same for structural soundness.

      Maybe ideally, building codes would be enforced by some kind of private accreditation agency rather than the government. (It’s not clear to me they have to be, but it wouldn’t cost me anything to concede the point.) And I’d “concede” that there should be opt-out provisions for building off-code. If a buyer wants a non-conforming building and seller wants to sell one, as long as the non-conforming building doesn’t impose unconsenting costs on third parties, let them build it. I’m not sure how easy that condition will be to meet, but I have no problem in-principle with it.

      The fact remains that where there are no private accreditation agencies, having building codes enforced by government is better than not having building codes at all. In that case, I have no objection to (3), except that I’d say that the “force” involved, if any, is pretty minimal. In the case being described, it’s worth remembering that the more rational members of the society not only would but do consent to the building codes, so the more rational the person, the less force is involved–if any is involved at all.

      Bottom line: What I would say is that poverty and affluence are the crucial set of variables, but that’s because affluence buys good government, and therefore buys good building codes and code enforcement. So I have less of a problem with this aspect of the reporting on Nepal. I also have less of a problem with considering the possibility that a whole society like Nepal could be systematically irrational and suffer catastrophic damage through a failure to make the best use of its available resources. I think that’s the answer here. Of course, Nepalis are hardly alone in being systematically irrational.

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      • Just to be clear, I’m taking issue with your opposition to (3). In other words, setting aside the complexities regarding “force,” I think (3) is a fairly reasonable claim. Likewise (4) and by implication (5).

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      • I think I agree with most of what you wrote. Admittedly this isn’t a topic I’ve though much about so this will help me clarify my thoughts.

        My biggest objection is that you aren’t distinguishing between “legal obligations” and “how to fulfill legal obligations.” That is, I agree that a store owner is legally obligated to have a building which won’t kill his customers, but I don’t think he’s legally obligated to accomplish that end by any particular means. Of course I know next to nothing about what makes a building safe or not, but neither does the average Nepali politician. Technical matters like “how to build a building which survives an 7.0 Richter Scale earthquake” should not be left up to legislation.

        Which are more stable foundations: asphalt or concrete? How should construction firms be accredited? What purity of steel is sufficient for an X story structure? To me it makes sense for the government to have a general principle in law like, “businesses must provide safe accommodations for customers” which is a subset of a more general legal principle like, “fraud” or “assault.” However, how a business or individual fulfills these legal obligations is not the government’s concern.

        If the government is in charge of determining minute building codes it creates terrible incentives. It places non-experts in power over technical matters. Even in a relatively well-functioning democracy like the US, this is a recipe for rampant lobbying and political manipulation. In a place like Nepal, it will pretty much result in bribery by default. There is also an additional risk of over regulation which is far more likely to come from the government than private organizations.

        Of course the government will always have to deal with technical matters like these to some degree, but they should be kept to a minimum. They should be relegated to private construction organizations to the greatest degree possible. I have no idea if such organizations exist in Nepal, but I also don’t see any reason government officials would be able to establish better regulations than whatever decentralized norms already exist in Nepal. In fact, given the incentives, government regulators or legislators would be more likely to create building codes which favor certain interests over others with little to no concern for protecting rights, and the end result would likely be worse than whatever norms existed before hand.

        I don’t buy the extreme litigation/common law arguments which can be applied to this case either (not that you advocate for them). That is, I don’t think anyone should be legally permitted to build any building they want, regardless of safety or danger to a third party, and then just face potential consequences through litigation if the worst should happen.

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        • On the legal obligation to have a structurally sound building and the means of ensuring soundness: at some level, as you suggest, that’s just a technical issue beyond the competence of either of us. The principle I would insist on is that the owner has a legal obligation to ensure (or do his best to ensure) that his building is structurally sound, using criteria of soundness that are objective and publicly stated in the law. That may or may not leave room for options as to how to achieve the goal, depending on the context. But on my view, the legal system (=the government) would get the final say as to what counts or doesn’t count as structural soundness, just as it gets the final say as to what counts or doesn’t count as assault.

          So I’m agreeing in principle with your first two main paragraphs (not counting the first two-sentence passage as a paragraph). But I disagree with the third. The topic here is legal protection of rights. Why think that government can’t issue detailed rules on what that requires, assuming that it turns out to be necessary?

          Neither of us has the technical knowledge to know that it is necessary, or if so, when it is. But for that very reason, we can’t close the door on the possibility that detailed rules may be necessary. The laws of assault and self-defense are pretty detailed, after all. There are incentive problems there as well, but the fundamental question is not incentives per se but what rights are involved, and how are all of them to be protected?

          Separate point: a government in charge of determining the details of a building code may create bad incentives (true), but not because it places non-experts in power over technical matters. A legislature can call almost indefinitely on the resources of experts (via hearings, committee work, lobbying, etc.) The real danger is not lack of expertise but over-regulation. That said, I don’t agree that private organizations are necessarily better than government at creating regulations. They just face the equal and opposite danger of under-regulation. Government wants power; business wants a higher profit margin. The two institutions have equal and opposite tendencies, and the clash between them via democratic engagement is ultimately a healthy and necessary thing, as long as both sides are honest. Democratic debate induces one side to see the truths that lie on the other side. (In reality, neither side is honest, but that’s why we have blogs to complain about them.) In other words, I don’t see any reason to favor private organizations over government in producing regulations with better content. As a simple illustration: I’m glad that my municipality is the entity that writes the noise ordinances where I live, rather than construction or development companies.

          I can’t speak for the details of Nepal’s politics, but I’d say the following relatively trivial (but true) things: since they do have building codes, assuming that those codes are sensible rather than over-regulatory, they need to be enforced. Meanwhile, Nepal has to develop a functioning quasi-democracy. That’ll take time, but there’s no alternative to it. In particular, there’s no purely free market fix that can be detached from the hard task of reforming the government alongside the development of the market.

          We’re agreeing in rejecting the extreme views you’re mentioning in your last paragraph, but I’m going further than you. For one thing, I don’t see the need to stop at a “minimum” when it comes to rights protection. What needs to be done is no more and no less than protecting all the rights involved. To insist on “minimums” is to incentivize protecting rights on the cheap. But then they don’t get protected.

          Also, I’m rejecting the line of libertarian thought that relies very heavily on Public Choice theory. The claim they make is that in any domain, if government sets the rules, you’ll get government failure, but if the market sets the rules, you’ll get some kind of desired, efficient equilibrium. I don’t buy it. For one thing, I would insist that if rights are at issue, the government must set the rules (even if it merely legitimates private arbiters who then set the rules). But as an empirical matter, I think Public Choice Libertarianism rests on over-generalizations. Once upon a time, a certain brand of liberals over-generalized about market failure (and still does). Now libertarians have simply managed to mirror the liberals’ approach by overgeneralizing about government failure. Neither side has gotten it right.

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