The Shock of the New
News arrives on Monday 26th October of another big earthquake, this time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not as large as Nepal, at 7.5 against 7.8, and the epi-centre is deeper so with less destructive shaking at the surface. I’ve become an amateur expert in plate tectonics since April.
But the scale is significant and the death toll continues to creep up, already in three figures and rising. One of the early reports describes 12 Afghan schoolgirls killed in a stampede to flee a school building.
I think again of my imminent TEDxBristol talk – Nepal will be its focus. The news reminds me of the chaos I encountered at Kathmandu airport as I tried to get a flight out back in April. Many hundreds of people were trying to get into the airport. Some had tickets, others had missed flights, all of us were just chancing it as next to no flights were taking off. The crush at the entrance was fierce with airport staff struggling to shut the doors to take us in in batches.
Information was sparse. A man shoved forward with grim determination beside me: “It’s everyone for themselves now, just push,” he urged me. “There are children here” I replied, indicating the young companion holding my hand, waist high, eyes huge and startled. I was accompanying the family of a Nepal-based colleague who was staying on. The man looked momentarily chastened, then thought again and barged past, now apologising as he pushed.
One woman tried a majestically misplaced and entirely ignored: “Don’t you know who I am?” and then, sensing the chilly vibe, ejected herself from the queue. She marched off haughtily announcing to no-one in particular that as this was chaos she’d return tomorrow when sanity would, she hoped, be resumed. No one suggested what many were thinking – that she might be better off grabbing her chances and staying.
After an hour and a half of pushing we popped through the entrance doors like corks from bottles. Inside the scene was no more reassuring. Power was down so nothing showed on the boards and the lights were out. In the dim check-in lounge people surged forward,
randomly picking a counter and queue, trying to get a boarding card to anywhere. Airline personnel looked harassed and slightly panicked at the sight of us, but they doggedly helped us as well as they could, a huge kindness in the circumstances.
And then, suddenly, it all got even worse, with the arrival of a sensation all of us, staff and passengers alike, were all too recently familiar with. A huge aftershock hit. Instinctively, I grabbed my colleague’s young son and hunkered down by a wall. As the ground buckled and flexed I watched the screws supporting the large information display above our heads fall out one by one. It somehow clung onto to the wall. As the noise subsided I stood up and tripped - the smooth hard marble floor had cracked open.
Would flights take off after this latest? It didn’t seem likely as we were told the control tower had been abandoned. But we were moving tantalisingly closer to the runway. We pressed on to the gate, we did now have boarding cards even if no news on flights. More waiting, more ground shaking. Many passengers had abandoned the terminal and sat crowded at the edge of the runway – we joined them. It felt better to be out in the open.
Out on the tarmac an aid operation was falling into place. We watched the Indian army planes and military personnel disgorging relief from the holds. Aid, so badly needed, was now starting to get in. Helicopters picked up palettes loaded with cargo heading for remoter places outside of Kathmandu valley.
And for us, around three hours after our taxi had prised us out of a car packed with bags and people, we were finally sitting on a Thai Airways plane. The crew were magnificent, acting as if everything was just as it should be. It had a positive effect. If we were being
handed a warm towel roll to freshen up everything was ok, right? The slow trundle in a plane full of fuel on a cracked runway took the longest time. I wasn’t sure there was anyone back in the Control Tower to guide us out there.
Finally we took off. Beneath us more cargo planes of international aid were arriving and soldiers stood in lines ready to ferry supplies to waiting trucks. In addition to this rapid mobilisation of supplies, one of the vital things people need is information on what to do and what to expect during a crisis. Where can they seek food and shelter and fresh water? How can they stay safe?
And that story about how media and communication are an essential part of aid and development efforts was why I’d been in Nepal in the first place – to film and write up case studies about how important access to information can be. And I had personally experienced in a very salient way how vital it really is.
It’s an aspect of this experience that I hope to share at my TEDxBristol talk. As news attests, whether the crisis is natural or manmade, we are all vulnerable to shocks and we should all do what we can to be more resilient to the impact. It’s about luck, but it is also about planning: preparing for the unexpected.