Tim Hart in Nepal with Build Change

Tim Hart Helps in Earthquake Damaged Nepal

Editor's Note:  Tim Hart is a structural engineer as well as a parishioner and vestry member at St. John's.  This is his story and a few of his pictures.  An abbreviated story appears in the August, 2015, Church Mouse.

On June 2, buoyed by prayers and well wishes from friends and family, I boarded an Etihad flight from SFO bound for a grueling 15-1/2 hour flight to Abu Dhabi. From there I flew to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I would spent the next two weeks surveying the damage from the April 25 Magnitude 7.8 earthquake and the May 12 Magnitude 7.3 aftershock and beginning the process of designing new and retrofitted homes and schools for the reconstruction.

 Sunrise in Kathmandu

Figure 1: Sunrise in Kathmandu

I went to Nepal to volunteer for Build Change, a small non-government organization that combines the experience of local engineers, architects and construction professionals with the expertise of its internationally-experienced seismic and structural engineers to design safe houses and schools that are culturally appropriate, preferred by the community, low cost, locally sustainable, and disaster-resistant. Build Change then provides training programs for local builders, homeowners, engineers, and government officials to teach them how to design and build safe houses and schools so that this knowledge remains in these communities long after Build Change has completed their work. I first worked with Build Change on the design of homes that were built in Banda Aceh, Indonesia as part of the reconstruction after the December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Since then I have worked on Build Change projects that have been built in Indonesia, China, Haiti, the Philippines, Guatemala, and now Nepal. This was my fifth overseas trip for Build Change, previously I travelled to Banda Aceh in 2006; Padang, Indonesia in 2009; Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2012; and Bogota, Colombia last November. So while this was my first trip to Nepal it was not my first trip to a country hard hit by a major earthquake.

While in Nepal I spend one week in Kathmandu and one week visiting 6 rural villages roughly a day’s journey from Kathmandu. In Kathmandu there were a few historic Hindu temples that were destroyed and scattered areas of damage around the city, but for the most part Kathmandu was still functioning at a relatively normal level.  Traffic was chaotic, dust was everywhere, scooters and taxis jockeyed for space on the streets, every building had a shop out front; basically a typical developing world major metropolis with the exception of the large number of cows that roamed the streets and even the highways. I was surprised to see almost all of the signs in Kathmandu, including the street signs, were in English as well as Nepali.

On my second day I went to the towns of Bungamati and Khokana, just outside of Kathmandu, and it was there that I first saw a significant amount of damaged and collapsed buildings. Many of the houses in these villages were built with unreinforced clay brick, which we have learned after several earthquakes in California (including the recent Napa earthquake) are vulnerable to damage in earthquakes. Those who had their homes collapse were still digging out what was left of their homes. There were stacks of bricks everywhere. The main square in Bungamati was filled with stacks of bricks 4 to 6 feet high.

 Square in Bungamati

Figure 2: Square in Bungamati

I and two other Build Change engineers then spent a week surveying 6 villages, 4 in Kavrepalanchok district and 2 in the Sindhupalchok district. Both districts were hit hard by the earthquakes, especially Sindhupalchok since it was close to the epicenter of the May 12 aftershock. All 6 villages were in remote mountain areas that are only accessible by either a narrow, steep, dirt road or by pedestrian paths cut into the hillsides. The roads were littered with holes and ruts and usually had a steep drop off on one side. Indeed, the only time on the entire trip that I was afraid for my safety was when we were driving up the road to Ramche, one of the villages in Sindhupalchok. The road was so steep and narrow that the vehicle we were driving in could not make the turns at the switchbacks, so the driver had to back up towards the steep cliff to complete the turn. I could not help but worry that we were one slipped gear away from falling a thousand feet down the hill.

 Road to Ramche

Figure 3: Road to Ramche

The two villages we visited in Sindhupalchok, Ramche and Maneshwor, were heavily damaged. Most of the homes were either totally collapsed or damaged beyond repair. The four villages that we visited in Kavrepalanchok (Dhungkharka, Mahankal Chaur, Chyasingkharka, and Chalal Ganeshthan) we found that the majority of homes were damaged, many beyond repair, but only a few that had collapsed. Most of the homes in all the villages were built using stone walls with mud mortar. While there are building codes in Nepal that include provisions for stone masonry construction, they were rarely followed in the villages as most homeowners and builders were not aware of them. All of the builders that we interviewed were born and raised in the villages where they worked and had no formal construction training. They learned by watching other builders and copying what they saw. Despite this, the quality of the craftsmanship was relatively good. The issues were not so much with the quality of the construction but rather the type of construction that was used.

Damaged house in Mahankal Chaur 

Figure 4: Damaged house in Mahankal Chaur

The immediate challenge in Nepal was to provide supplies for temporary shelter to the villages before the start of monsoon season (which thankfully I just missed). That challenge was met in the villages that we visited. The more daunting challenge that everyone living and working in Nepal still face is rebuilding the homes and schools after the monsoon season in the hundreds of villages similar to the 6 that we visited that are remote and inaccessible several months of the year, and where the residents have limited financial resources.

 Chalal Ganeshthan

Figure 5: Chalal Ganeshthan

There is reason for hope though. The people that we talked to all wanted to build back better if they could and all understood the challenges ahead. If I could use one word to describe the people in Nepal that I met it would be “resilient”. Despite their losses and their hardships, the people that I met were all willing to share their stories. I did not meet anyone who were angry, depressed, or resigned to their bad fate. I am inspired by their spirit to help them rebuild their country, even more than I was before I left.


Figure 6: School children in Dhungkharka

If you would like to make a contribution to Build Change (and perhaps help fund my next trip), you can donate online at https://salsa4.salsalabs.com/o/51392/donate_page/donate. You can also make a donation specifically for their Nepal program at https://salsa4.salsalabs.com/o/51392/donate_page/nepal