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Nepal

How To Topple A Building

How to topple a building: mix extra sand into the concrete so the cinder blocks are more filler than stone, and skip the rebar all together.

That’s how buildings were constructed in Kathmandu, Port au Prince, Izmir, and any of a dozen cities like them, and why earthquakes there were so deadly.

It’s not for lack of knowledge or building codes. These places had both. What they didn’t have was political or social stability, which made it easy to ignore the lives of poor people whenever money could be made.

Greedy contractors and corrupt public officials are certainly to blame. But look deeper and the fault lines start to blur. Maybe the building inspector took a bribe because he didn’t earn enough money to feed his own family. Or the migrant who came looking for work entered the lease even after hearing that the building next door collapsed a few nights before seemingly out of no-where. But really, what choice is there when all the buildings are the same? When this is all you can afford because the little money you make goes back to the family you left behind in the village stricken by drought.  “Structural defects” describe more than the buildings in some of these places.

So, when the earthquake hits, the buildings fall down. Hard and fast. And lots of people die. In a moment.

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This is what I fell asleep thinking about last night. So you can imagine my surprise when the boys and I happened upon an “earthquake exhibit” at the Science Center this morning. No kidding! The exhibit lets you construct a building out of little blocks on top of a platform that shakes when you turn it on. So here’s a clip of the two buildings we made. We used plastic spokes as rebar in the building on the left, and no rebar in the one on the right. See if you can count how long the one without rebar remained standing after we turned the machine on at the 4 second mark.

-Kathy Bergin

What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?

I get this question a lot.  For me, it’s someone who uses the law to empower people whose rights are overlooked or outright violated in a disaster.  We advocate for people who were socially vulnerable and politically marginalized even before the disaster, and therefore especially susceptible to human rights abuse after a disaster.

Hurricane Katrina was my first direct experience with a mega-disaster, and it’s important to be clear about what happened. The strength of the storm and where it landed are accepted as reasons so many people died, or struggled to stay afloat in the drawn-out aftermath. But life was fated for people across the Gulf Coast long before Katrina, by government policies that determined who lived where; whether and when they could escape; and if those who made it out were encouraged to return home.  I saw the same thing play out in Haiti, and witnessed it from a distance in the Philippines, Nepal, and virtually everywhere else an earthquake hit, a hurricane struck, or a drought crept in.  The most important thing I learned from Katrina and these other events is that disasters do the most damage along political fault-lines that already exist.

I also learned something else from Katrina.  Continue reading “What is a Disaster Lawyer, Anyway?”

Nepal Earthquake: One Year Later

A massive 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015. The government effectively shut down just weeks later after lawmakers couldn’t agree on the provisions of a new national constitution. The National Reconstruction Authority disbanded as a result, and was recommissioned just recently after the new constitution was adopted.

Meanwhile, India, Nepal’s neighbor and strongest trading partner, blocked aid convoys from crossing into Nepal. Depending who you ask, that move was India’s attempt to flex some muscle against Nepal for constitutional proposals it disapproved of, or to protect drivers from confrontations with violent protesters across the border. Either way, the embargo lasted for four months, during which truckloads of food, and fuel, and building supplies languished on a highway while people inside Nepal slept in the rain without knowing when they would get their next meal.

Finally, the government says, a national reconstruction program is getting out of the gate. Let’s hope that’s true, because a lot of catch up is needed before any appreciable progress can be measured. One year later, here’s where things stand:

The toll:

  • 9000: people killed;
  • 1,000,000: homes destroyed;
  • 4,000,000: people still living under substandard temporary conditions.

The “progress”:

The money flow:

Reports also say that villagers in the hardest hit remote areas have yet to receive ANY governmental assistance, and still have not been reached by aid groups.

-Kathleen Bergin

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