The Psychology of Inevitable Earthquakes

Nepalis saw disaster coming. Why wasn't more done to prepare for it?

A damaged wall clock in Kathmandu (Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

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.

* * *

This week, the Big One finally came, 81 years after the bigger Big One. It's not as if Nepalis, in government and out, were doing nothing to prepare for the next earthquake; due in part to these efforts, the death toll, as far as is known now, is actually lower than the most dire predictions. But why weren't more buildings constructed not to collapse, and why wasn't there a better plan to mitigate the food and water shortages now threatening survivors? There's a variety of explanations, not least Nepal's dysfunctional political system, which has remained polarized since the country's 10-year civil war ended in 2006, and rapid, slapdash urbanization without corresponding government enforcement of building codes.

But there's another factor, bound up in all the others: Nepali attitudes toward the Earthquake That Was Due. These attitudes are reflected in the prophesies of the Nepali Times, which wrestle with thinking about the unthinkable. It's not unlike the challenge we all face in confronting climate change: How do you chip away at such a remote and massive threat?

Nepal's "population was not ignorant," Susan Hough, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who has traveled to Nepal, told The New York Times. "Fatalism arises when problems are so far outside people's control that they can't do anything about it—or rather, they think they can't do anything about it."

"Literally until three days ago it was extremely difficult to get the Nepalese government really interested in this business of preparedness," Jon Bennett, who has worked with the British government on earthquake preparedness in Nepal, told the BBC on Monday. "After all, they hadn't had a major earthquake for 80 years. And if you're in a poor country you have far more other priorities to take care of rather than speculating as to whether or not there's going to be an earthquake." Adding 3 percent to construction costs to earthquake-proof a new home can seem, in the moment, like a laughable luxury.

That 80-year interval between Big Ones matters, too. In a 2012 study in the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, researchers at Japan's Chiba University found that residents of the Kathmandu Valley who had experienced an earthquake in their lifetimes were more likely than those who hadn't to be concerned about the damage earthquakes cause, as well as to report that they were prepared for future ones. The authors noted that people in Kathmandu hadn't experienced a major earthquake since a 6.8-magnitude temblor hit the country in 1988, and several generations had passed since the tragedy of 1934. Memory of those disasters was receding, and the researchers suggested that Nepal follow Japan's lead and promote preparedness by providing citizens with simulations of mega-quakes, as with the truck below:

A 2007 survey of households in Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Turkey offers additional insight into how residents of Nepal—in the case of this poll, those living in Kathmandu—assessed the risk of another earthquake. When asked about the threat that could most severely affect their lives, respondents in Nepal, despite living in one of the world's hubs of seismic activity, tended to list disease and unemployment, while those in the other three countries cited natural disasters.

Still, many respondents in Nepal—who were most worried about earthquakes when asked specifically about natural disasters—were well aware of the damage that an earthquake could cause. More than 80 percent said a big quake could cost them their homes, the lives of their family members, or their own lives. But some also appeared to express fatalism—or at the very least hopelessness. Sixty-two percent of respondents in Nepal said their house wasn't strong enough to withstand a major earthquake. Of those who said this, two-thirds reported that even with this knowledge, they were not planning to make their house safer or move away from the unsafe house. When pollsters asked this subset of respondents whether they were worried about their house collapsing from an earthquake, 87 percent said yes. In other words, they knew their home couldn't survive an earthquake, and this reality concerned them, but they weren't planning to do anything about it.

This is all the more striking given that more than 40 percent of Nepali respondents reported that they would blame themselves—rather than the government or home-builders, in contrast to many respondents in Turkey—if an earthquake destroyed their houses and killed some family members. Hardly any Nepalis, in fact, mentioned the government. It was perhaps another reflection of despair with the country's authorities, but also a clue to how earthquake-preparedness campaigns in Nepal could be improved.

The strategy the researchers suggested was to bypass government, which residents didn't seem to be relying on anyway, and instead directly lobby and train local craftsmen and the residents themselves, since many heads of households believed they were ultimately responsible for the safety of their homes and family members.

That's roughly the approach that Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times, advocated in January 2015.

"When (not if) the next big earthquake strikes Nepal, don't ask what the government can do for you, ask what your community can do for itself," Dixit wrote, lamenting the country's "endless political gridlock and dead-end development." He quoted one engineer saying that given all this, Nepal's "best option is to decentralize risk management to the household, village or municipality level."

Three months later, the Big One struck.