Alumnus Chris Decker’s eye-witness account of the Kathmandu devastation

local firehouse reduced to rubble

D. Christopher Decker ’98 (left), a local firehouse reduced to rubble.

The 7.9 magnitude earthquake on Saturday, April 25, in Nepal, devastated Kathmandu and nearby areas, killing more than 8,000 Nepalis.  D. Christopher Decker ’98, Chief Technical Advisor for the Rule of Law and Human Rights Program of the UN Development Program, was in the city when the earthquake struck. Though he and his family are safe, below is his first-hand account of the events that took place.

By D. Christopher Decker

Needless to say the earthquake itself was horrible, but it is so unexpected that you simply react; run out of building grab random children, hold strangers hands to comfort one another. The 7.9 earthquake reminded me of trying to stand up at the fun house ride at Sea Breeze Amusement Park in Rochester, where I grew up. The earth threw you one way, and then another, in a complete random manner.

The aftershocks are horrendous because many of them were in the 5-6 range. You are sitting in open areas and you feel the movement much more profoundly. I was at the American Club at the time, and the water from the pool ricocheted off the walls and rose about 10 feet in the air, and began to surge out of the pool. At these times I think you often have very clear thoughts, and frankly, very stupid ones, too. When I saw the water surge, I could only think of the tsunami in Thailand, and I wondered if I was going to drown. A complete stupid thought considering I was in a wide open area the size of four baseball diamonds and the pool was not even Olympic sized.

As the water settled in the pool, it turned black from the liquefaction of the earth during the quake. As I looked up in the sky, crows were flying all over and dust was rising from the south and the west. As I later learned this was the collapse of Dharahara Tower and some temples in Kathmandu Durbar Square.

The Sunday 6.7 earthquake in some ways was worse. I was at my home and watched my house swaying one way, while my car swayed the other. That quake was long. It lasted close to one minute. It started slow and built up and then dissipated very slowly. The big one on Saturday happened with a bang and was probably over in 30 seconds.

For the following three nights I slept in my car. Besides being awoken by tremors that rocked the car, I live in a flight path. With all the large C-130 planes that are bringing aid into Kathmandu at the moment, there are frequent rumblings that mimic the rumble prior to an earthquake. The jet engines shake the house windows just like an earthquake, and it serves as a constant reminder of those horrible quakes.

Now the tough part starts: the immediate relief and recovery. I write this from the UN Compound and there are hundreds of people that have flooded in here as part of the international disaster response, including rescue teams from the US. So far, Nepalis are still sleeping outside in open areas for fear of further tremors that might bring down their houses. At the moment it is fairly good natured, but rumors of fuel and water shortages are starting to circulate. If they are true, this is where the real danger starts. Beside the disease and malnutrition, the security situation could get very tricky. At the moment, the military and the armed police are out in the streets, but if they stop showing up for duty and shortages increase substantially, life could get even worse.

The cleanup has begun. Big super-markets are opening back up and trying to literally pick up the pieces. Shops are littered with broken jars, liquid soap and oils. So far I have not seen any real hording, but locals are telling me that food prices are starting to go up. Even in a “normal” situation, Nepalis are either very poor or very rich. Most of the poor live in poorly built or very old houses, the kinds that were destroyed in the quake. These are also the people that simply cannot afford for food prices to rise.

If anyone is interested in donating, please give money to reputable organizations. Trying to send goods will clog the airport up even more than it is already, plus what you send might not be what is really needed. Aid organizations on the ground have many experts that can assess what is needed, but these organizations need the money to buy those supplies.