Nepal storm: Entire village ‘mourning but for others it is a festival’

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Nepal storm: Entire village ‘mourning but for others it is a festival’

On Tuesday afternoon, Pheta rural municipality of Bara district in southern Nepal had an air of a funfair. Horse-drawn carriages and brightly painted auto-rickshaws brought visitors from neighbouring villages and towns. Trucks and trailers arrived loaded sacks of rice and vegetables.

Some came just for a look. People were busy taking selfies and snapping photos of the locals. A group of students were there with their teacher who explained that they had come for an educational trip, to experience what a disaster zone looks like.

The residents of Pheta, about 120km from the capital, Kathmandu, had nowhere to escape to. Most had just lost their homes. Some had just lost their loved ones. They stood guard, keeping watch over their belongings – the little they had managed to recover. They wore a look of shock and disbelief as people stared at them as if they were specimens in a zoo.

For them, normal life came undone on Sunday. Around 7:30 in the evening, fierce winds started, uprooting trees and throwing vehicles in the air. Locals say the wind was warm and it moved in a circular motion; a phenomenon they’d never experienced before.

No one understands our pain and grief. The whole village is in mourning but for others, it is a festival

Devi Patel, resident of Pheta

Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology says the wind speeds were more than 90 kilometres an hour. In less than two minutes, at least 31 people had died, hundreds were injured and more than 2,400 homes had been damaged – around 900 flattened to the ground.

Disasters are not new in Nepal. Between 2000 and 2017, more than 16,000 people lost their lives to natural calamities. This includes the earthquake in 2015 when more than 9,000 people died.

The local government, the first in two decades, found itself overwhelmed [Bishnu Kalpit/Al Jazeera]

Nepal’s first democratic constitution passed in 2015 has a disaster mitigation plan – sharing the burden between the federal, provincial and local layers of government – created to devolve power.

Nepal elected representatives to all the three organs of the state in 2017 and soon the new parliament endorsed the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act.

‘The early warning system’

While on paper the plan looks good, the first step for disaster reduction, the early warning system, failed. The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology released a statement on Monday saying they don’t have enough equipment and human resources for these ‘unexpected’ occurrences.

As it often does, the best in people came out in times of need. According to the district officials from both Bara and Parsa districts, locals along with security forces responded within minutes in the aftermath of the storm.

The injured and the dead were loaded into vehicles and taken to the local hospitals. Social media came alive with volunteers organising blood donations. People started collecting money, food and even school supplies.

The provincial government pledged $3,000 to each victim who died and the federal government promised to rebuild the houses that were destroyed.

But the government’s disaster mitigation plans that should have translated into action, did not.

Beda Nidhi Khanal, under-secretary of the National Emergency Operation Center, told Al Jazeera that confusion on jurisdiction made things difficult.

Chief district officer for Bara, Rajesh Poudel, told Al Jazeera that they have a disaster plan but “not one for thunderstorms”.

His office, the district administration office, which falls under the federal government’s home ministry, is supposed to coordinate with the local government. By Wednesday, the office had finally put together a committee for creating a database, an inventory of all those affected.

‘We are left with nothing’

Without a database, it was a freefall for relief distributors. On Tuesday, local NGOs and political cadres were haphazardly distributing food rations and tents.

Several residents told Al Jazeera that people near the road head were receiving several tarpaulin sheets, while in the interior they had not received any. Tempers flared intermittently. People who had lost everything found themselves fighting for relief material.

The local government, the first in two decades, found itself overwhelmed.

Khanal from the National Emergency Operation Center said the local government’s performance has been poor.

“They haven’t told us how many people have received relief or how many still are in need. They haven’t demanded anything, neither relief materials nor money, from the federal government.” 

Amiri Shah, head of the Pheta Rural Municipality, has been coping with the influx of senior political leaders, party representatives as well as other officials – all of whom want to distribute relief material on their own terms.

“If they come through us, they can still distribute themselves but in areas that need it. But everyone wants to distribute where they please. That’s why our disaster-hit village is like a festival site,” he told Al Jazeera.

The problems of leaderships, coordination, seniority and jurisdiction among the layers of government have created a level of bitterness for the survivors of the storm.

“We are left with nothing. The big politicians and government babus came and spoke to us but they are not giving us shelter fast enough,” said Devi Patel, sitting on the rubble of her damaged home.

“We are sick of cameras and people taking our photos, including you. No one understands our pain and grief. The whole village is in mourning but for others, it is a festival.”

A woman sits in the middle of the debris of a house damaged in Bara district [Niranjan Shrestha/The Associated Press]

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