One is a civil engineer, the other a counselor. Together the Cal State Fullerton professors share an emotional and physical bond with Nepal, a country devastated by deadly earthquakes this spring.
Landslide and earthquake expert Binod Tiwari was born and raised in the South Asian country. Jeffrey A. Kottler is a professor of counseling and founder of a nonprofit organization that supports girls’ education in Nepal.
When the 7.8 magnitude quake struck on April 25, Tiwari and Kottler did not hesitate. Both traveled to Nepal on separate missions: Tiwari to co-lead an international team to evaluate the effects of damage to structures and buildings as a result of the earthquake that killed more than 8,600 people, and Kottler to help with medical aid and counseling.
They are back home now but the images of villages destroyed, centuries-old cultural and religious heritage buildings crumbled and the human toll remain vivid in their memories. They experienced firsthand the fear and uncertainty when aftershocks rumbled through the land they had come to help recover.
An Emotional Homecoming
Tiwari returned to his native country in early May, only to find the mountain village of Gorkha, his hometown, reduced to rubble.
“The devastation was huge throughout the country,” Tiwari said quietly, safe at home in his campus office, adding that the smell of death and destruction was everywhere and overwhelming. It was so powerful that he and team members wore facemasks while doing their fieldwork.
Tiwari, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, spent three weeks co-leading GEER — Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaissance Team — with efforts funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation. The 13-member team of U.S. and international engineering and geotechnical experts collaborated with various Nepalese organizations, including academic institutions, government organizations and professional societies.
By foot and aerial reconnaissance to remote terrain, the team covered an area 240 miles in length by 60 miles, spanning from west of the epicenter in Gorkha to the east near China’s border. What Tiwari witnessed was heartbreaking, but also a miracle that some buildings, those constructed with reinforced steel, concrete and cement mortar, were left standing.
Because the ground shaking in the valley areas, including the capital of Kathmandu, was not as strong, many structures were saved from quake destruction, Tiwari noted. His team also found that bridges and highways were not damaged, due to their sturdy foundations. It was the isolated villages at the foothills of the Himalayas that were hit hardest because of quake-induced landslides.
When a second 7.3 magnitude quake struck on May 12, it initially paralyzed him with fear as he witnessed people running, screaming and crying while inside the swaying SUV he was riding in on his way to conduct fieldwork.
“I was scared,” he said, adding that people were living under tarps, afraid to be inside their homes because of the aftershocks.
Even his 65-year-old mother and sister were among those too frightened to sleep in their beds. But after he inspected his family’s house, and also many others in his ancient hometown and elsewhere, he reassured them that it was safe to return to their homes. Toward the end of his stay, he finally found the time to spend two nights at his mother’s home to help her return to a sense of normalcy.
“For me, personally, I felt so bad for the people, especially the children and elderly,” he added.
Tiwari, who is back to teach summer courses, is working on finalizing the team’s report this month in hopes that it will help the country’s rebuilding efforts and address geo-hazards that linger and pose more danger. He plans to return to Nepal in early August.
His work in Nepal also included delivering professional talks and offering advice to the country’s geotechnical engineers and government officials. He also was sought out by Nepalese and other news media for his expertise.
“I was able to educate hundreds of engineers in Nepal and give them input on infrastructure improvements and what they should do to rebuild,” he said. “Being there to help and console people made me feel proud. I saw people starting to smile again — in the hopes of rebuilding.”
Counseling Those in Need
Kottler, professor of counseling, departed for Nepal after the first earthquake hit.
“There was a lot of devastation, a lot of panic and a lot of crumbled buildings, but people were trying to pick up their lives,” said the founder of Empower Nepali Girls, a nonprofit organization that supports girls’ education.
When the second big earthquake hit, he was playing “Ring Around the Rosy” with a few young students. “The buildings around us crumbled. You could feel the earth bucking like a bronco. People were screaming. Children were crying,” he said.
After the second earthquake, he added, “Everything went downhill. It looked like a nuclear bomb had exploded.” The schools of the 300 scholarship girls supported by his organization have been destroyed.
Kottler traveled with a medic and a hospital administrator, treating 744 patients in the two weeks they were there. Every day, they felt two to three earthquakes. A lack of sanitation, food or water facilities have made matters that much more dire, with a risk of infectious diseases on the rise. There is a great need for tents, he explained, because people no longer have places to live.
Kottler has sent another team to help and will return to Nepal in December with a group of students to assist with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says should be affecting victims around that time.
“It’s just so hard to see all the people who are suffering,” says Kottler. “When a disaster first hits, it’s in the news for two weeks and then it disappears, but it’s going to take 10 years for the country to bounce back.
“The one thing Nepali children say to us all the time is, ‘Please don’t forget me.’ “
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