Last Word: Capturing the Quake

A filmmaker’s journey home to Nepal after the earthquake.

By Nat Needham '07

My fifth-hand, 110cc Honda Win motorcycle was fully loaded with two duffle bags, a new wife and an old backpack as I navigated through Ho Chi Minh City’s infamous traffic. The plan was to travel 1,000 kilometers north to Hanoi for our honeymoon, when a Facebook message from a cousin stopped our weaving exit from the city. “Is your mom OK?” My mother lived in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, nestled in the foothills of the highest mountains in the world. I was certain there had been an earthquake.

I grew up in Asia, and throughout my high-school days in Kathmandu, I was acutely aware of the seismic hazards posed by tectonic slippage. I had casually dismissed warnings of Nepal’s imminent “Big One” until I experienced firsthand the destruction a natural disaster could wreak. During winter break of my sophomore year at Bucknell, my family and I were vacationing in Thailand, and we were swept up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I lost my father and numerous friends among the hundreds of thousands who died, and I returned to Bucknell forever changed.

After the tsunami, I made a personal vow to return to Nepal, the place I considered home, if an earthquake ever happened. In the minutes and hours following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, 2015, I began organizing We Help Nepal (WeHelpNepal.org), a peer-to-peer emergency-response network led by a core group of friends with roots in Nepal. Despite being on our honeymoon, my wife, Amanda, sent Facebook blasts and fielded Skype calls from the back of our motorcycle, and I led the communication and design work for a website and outreach materials whenever we reached a new city. Our network raised more than $600,000, and Amanda and I flew to Nepal six weeks later to help deliver it to more than 40 organizations, assisting tens of thousands of people.

On the ground, we found ourselves among a de facto civilian response that had emerged to fill the gaps left by government and international-aid agencies. We trekked into the Himalayas with people from remote villages to deliver crowd-sourced aid, interviewed doctors who had developed affordable emergency medical shelters and worked with traditional Tibetan medicine men and community acupuncturists who had treated thousands of people for disease and post-traumatic stress using alternative healing methods. Overall, nearly 9,000 people had died in the quake. The largest project we spearheaded was with the Langtangpa community, whose remote village was destroyed by an avalanche triggered by the earthquake, killing more than 400 people. We worked with survivors to create a digital archive of photos and oral testimonies that would preserve and record the history and culture of the valley.

Unlike traditional disaster-response models, all of these projects were spearheaded by strong bonds of kinship and solidarity and aided by social media and crowd-funding websites. As a filmmaker, I was able to bear witness to the unusual constellation of people that galvanized the recovery effort. My hope is that their stories live on and that the spirit of resilience that has defined the people’s response to the Nepal earthquake is not forgotten.

 

Nat Needham '07 is a photographer and videographer whose work has been featured in many media outlets, including Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle and Portland Monthly.


More from Nat Needham '07

Short films and multimedia projects created by Nat Needham '07, in order of reference in his Last Word essay.

We Help Nepal (website)
A peer-to-peer response to the Nepal earthquake

Heart of the Quake
A Californian woman who emigrated from Nepal to the United States over 20 years ago returns to her familial village in the Himalayas to deliver aid after the 2015 earthquake.
02:40

White Tunnel
Shortages in the marketplace after Nepal's 2015 earthquake compel a local dentist to develop a locally sourced and affordable shelter module that can be used across the country.
01:49

Slow Medicine in Fast Times
A team of traditional Tibetan medicine doctors visit the remote Langtang Valley to conduct culturally appropriate medical camps after the 2015 earthquake.
16:31

Acupuncturist Without Borders
Local acupuncturists and volunteers treat thousands of survivors and first responders for post-traumatic stress in the days after the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
02:40

Langtang Memory Project (website)
A multimedia experience exploring the people and history of the Langtang Valley

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