A powerful earthquake shook Nepal just before noon on Saturday, April 25th. , 2015. The massive quake, measured at 7.9 magnitude on the Richter scale, had its epicenter between the capital city of Kathmandu and the old capital of Pokhara.
The devastating effects of the quake were felt all around the country. In addition to severe damage to Kathmandu, the tremor unleashed an avalanche at Mt. Everest that killed 19, and another in the scenic Langtang Valley that took at least 250 lives. So far, the Gorkha Earthquake has killed more than 8,000, injured more than 19,000, and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Our special ops team is always on call
At our ops center in Bellevue, Washington, we quickly went into action mode. There was no other choice: calls for evacuations poured in just hours after the quake, and within the first three days we handled inquiries to evacuate more than 140 foreign nationals from Nepal.
The majority of calls came from travel risk management providers with whom we have master service agreements; these companies contract with insurers and other large organizations. We also were contacted directly by a number of our corporate customers who had employees, friends, or family on the ground in Nepal.
A global effort supported by a strong local network
In addition to around-the-clock resource management and coordination from our Bellevue office, we had regional coordination from our New Delhi office and our own people on the ground in Nepal.
The Indian team mobilized manpower into Nepal within 24 hours, enabling us to set up a temporary operations center in Kathmandu which could then establish and manage seven ground teams and three aircrews working at multiple locations throughout the country.
Because of our strong network of vetted secure transportation providers in Nepal, we were able to gain access to pilots, drivers, vehicles, helicopters and light aircraft in a logistical situation that was otherwise enormously difficult.
A weak infrastructure pushed beyond its limits
Nepal is a popular tourist destination with around 800,000 arrivals per year. Travelers from around the globe are drawn both to historic Kathmandu and to remote Himalayan trekking areas. Nepal is also one of the poorest countries in the world. Both factors contributed to the complexity of evacuation services. Severe weather conditions and roads made impassable by landslides further complicated matters.
Within 12 hours of the quake the Kathmandu airport experienced an extreme influx of incoming flights. Heavy rains and thunderstorms caused by the spring monsoons grounded helicopters and many light aircraft. The Nepalese government suspended charter and private air support and commandeered private aircraft to support government rescue and evacuation efforts. Finding road and air assets in such circumstances was only possible because Ninad, our colleague from New Delhi, was on the ground in Nepal and was able to draw on our existing local network.
Communication and expectations
As aftershocks continued to pummel Nepal’s devastated infrastructure, what were weak communication systems prior to the quake floundered further under the extra pressure. It was impossible for many travellers to let family and friends know that they were OK. Tragically, not all were.
Our ops center in Washington became the communications hub that coordinated many moving parts. It was here that we fielded calls and mails from companies and families who wanted to evacuate people from Nepal. And it was here that we discovered, once again, the importance of managing expectations: the devastation of Nepal’s infrastructure was so severe that communication within the country was extremely difficult and slow.
Finding travellers in remote areas – then arranging for their transportation to Kathmandu and beyond – was a complex and time-consuming affair. Once we did locate an evacuee, we were pleased to be able to communicate that he or she was OK. We were also happy that other foreign nationals around the evacuee could use our communication channels to let their families know of their status and whereabouts.
6 days, 141 inquiries, 24 evacuations and 7 hours of sleep
Over the course of six days after the quake we received inquiries to support the evacuation of 141 individuals all over Nepal. In the end, we helped evacuate 24 persons, including four from Everest with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The majority of the 141 were not evacuated due to insurance company issues and delays due to air support limitations; several larger groups of students and a number of expats were also included in the 141.
Communication and coordination with international clients and our people in Nepal was more than a full-time job. We were able to use the time difference between Nepal and Washington State to our advantage: we could work during the Nepalese night on planning and communication with clients, then the Nepalese day to carry out operations. In the six days, I managed to clock seven hours of sleep.
It was an intense week with many tragedies, frustrations and victories. As parents our hearts went out to clients who lost children to the disaster. As professionals we followed our SOPs, kept track of our operations boards and celebrated each and every of the 24 evacuations we were able to assist. We will be even better prepared the next time we need to coordinate so many evacuations.
Give what you can
Of course, the people of Nepal are those who suffered the most. It is they that must live with aftermath of the devastation that the Gorkha Earthquake wreaked, and rebuild their lives and their beautiful country.
We encourage you to donate to the charity of your choice to make things even just a little easier for them.