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The earthquake response: behind the scenes

Australian aid worker Jess Letch has arrived in Nepal to support the international Red Cross response to the earthquake, focussing on gender and protection. Her blog takes you behind the scenes of an international emergency response.

Tuesday 12 May: Another bleak Tuesday

We felt the earth tremble. At first this was not such a problem; small rumbles happen regularly. Then we felt it surge, a low rumbling wave.

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People leapt from their seats. It was quite a sight, us all running for the door. Chairs were overturned; I'm not sure I felt much of the earthquake after that, as my feet hardly touched the ground.


When it happened, I was at a meeting at the Ministry of Women and Children. The main building was already heavily damaged from the original quake, so we were in a small one-story building out back. The room was over-crowded, with 70+ government, NGO, Red Cross and UN people inside to talk about the special needs of women and children in response to the first 7.9 earthquake.

The second quake brought us all into the courtyard of this damaged building. We kept moving quickly, just in case a large section of the building fell. Power lines were waving above us; there was a crashing noise as a workman fell from some scaffolding as he tried to climb down to safety.

Once we all reached an open area, the phone lines jammed. Filled with fear from the first big quake, people knew this one was significant. Everyone started dialling their loved ones, to check if their family members were alive.

I sent a text message to my manager to share my location and report that I was safe and well, then I tried to send a 'relaxed' SMS to mum and my partner: "You might have heard that there was another small quake in Nepal. I'm fine, all good here".

Then we found our vehicle and headed across town, through traffic chaos - abandoned cars, people taking shelter on traffic islands, fingers pointing skyward at tall buildings that were known to be weak - until we reached the rest of our Red Cross team at the assembly point.

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Tuesday 6 May: In the ball park

Two Nepali colleagues and I climb into a small rental taxi and drive across town.

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The city itself is sporadically affected. In what looks like a normal street you will turn a corner to find a massive building heaving to the left at a 45-degree angle, people picking bare-handed through the rubble below to salvage what they can.

Next to the zoo is a football field. In the football field a group of 25 people with a disability have set up temporary shelter. They have five Red Cross tents, and sleep with family members - nine people per tent - on the bare ground.

Across the field is a huge canopy, erected for a wedding on the weekend of the earthquake and still left standing. By day they head to the wedding tent and relax in the shade.

We talk about their situation. One of the group, Krishna, explains that they're okay for now - people are donating food and they even receive visits from a volunteer doctor who is staying nearby. When the rains start they will need a solution: it's hard to find wheelchair accessible homes in this city, and rent is not cheap. They have lost everything.

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Monday 4 May: In tents

The Nepal Red Cross compound is abuzz with action, working hard to reach out to the 8 million people in urgent need.

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Nepal Red Cross has over 5,000 volunteers and first responders in the affected areas, helping with search and rescue, emergency first aid, collecting assessment information and distributing aid.

A response of this scale also requires an enormous international effort. Red Cross people have flown in from around the world: medical teams, water engineers, construction specialists, logisticians, IT technicians, communications experts, gender advisors and forensic specialists... all are needed to help the National Society to scale up.

This is intense. It also 'in tents'. Since the big quake, Kathmandu continues to be rocked by aftershocks. Staff and volunteers are still afraid to return to their offices. And so the entire operation takes place outdoors, in temporary offices that provide shade and shelter while Nepal Red Cross people go about their enormous job.

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Sunday 3 May: Day One, Hour One

Kathmandu airport is quite a sight: the runway is scattered with pyramids of netted cargo crates (most bearing red cross logos).

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At immigration I stand behind a tall monk in saffron robes wearing a shiny red hard hat. The luggage belts lurch and stop at random intervals, surrounded by piles of uncollected suitcases and branded boxes of bottled water that might be looking for a home. A dozen young men wearing foreign office lanyards rush along the belt, scooping up 83 big slippery boxes of blankets, most of which split open in their arms.

A guy in an airport jacket checks in with me: "Do you come through KL?" Yes, I answer.

"Okay, wait here, belt three. It will be a long time." Day one, hour one.

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