Everyone knew the Big One was imminent. And no one was quite ready.
That's the unshakeable impression you get from the archives of the English-language Nepali Times, which make for eerie reading in the wake of Saturday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake. In a matter of seconds, the temblor reduced iconic landmarks to rubble, inflicted billions of dollars in damage, nearly extinguished entire villages, drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and left at least 5,000 dead in Nepal.
An 8.1-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 11,000 people in India and Nepal in January 1934, and historical records indicated that another quake of similar magnitude could be expected in the Kathmandu Valley within 70 to 80 years. Himalayan tectonics and geology had rendered one of the world's most unpredictable natural disasters relatively predictable—or at least inevitable, and ever-closer as the decades passed. And prophets of doom came in many forms, ranging from a red panda trotted out on Nepal's annual Earthquake Safety Day to journalists at outlets like the Nepali Times, who issued a staccato series of warnings over the years:
In 2004, shortly after an earthquake in Iran, the Nepali Times noted:
Given Kathmandu's rampant growth and flimsy housing, the next big one will kill at least 100,000 people. Those who die may be the lucky ones.
They say earthquakes don't kill people, houses do. But try telling that to the private home owners adding another floor to their fragile houses, or bribing an official to pass a house design so they can save money on construction. Most of us are acting like ... ostriches with heads in the sand when it comes to preparing for the next big one.
In 2008, following an earthquake in China:
[M]y thoughts turned immediately to Nepal and the unthinkable: a similar quake hitting Kathmandu. A Big One in Kathmandu is not a question of if. It is a question of when. ...
Nepal's planners must start thinking about rescue, relief, rehabilitation, retrofitting seismic-resistant schools and hospitals and enforcing zoning laws.
In 2010, after an earthquake in Haiti:
An earthquake hitting Kathmandu Valley is like all-out nuclear war. If you think about it too much you’ll go mad.
So most people try not to worry too much and get on with their lives. ...
Like Haiti, we have no disaster preparedness plan. Nepal and Haiti are both the poorest countries in their regions. Both have unplanned and haphazard urban growth. [The Haitian capital] Port-au-Prince’s advantage is that even if the airport is destroyed, relief can come from the sea. [Note: Nepal is landlocked, with few heavy-duty roads.]
Our only advantage is the knowledge that the next ‘Big One’ can happen any day.
And just this year:
Nepal as a nation does not seem to believe in Murphy’s Law which states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, which in this case is the high probability of an earthquake. Rather than taking concrete action to avoid the catastrophe, we believe that a little help from astrology and the usual ‘Ke Garne’ ['What to do?'] attitude will be sufficient.
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