Nepalese in Iowa coordinate earthquake relief efforts

"Tragedy in a place that had no safety net'

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Early Saturday in Iowa City, Uttam Gurung learned his hometown — the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu — had been devastated by a massive 7.9 earthquake.

As the hours passed, the death toll climbed into the thousands. His heart and mind raced for the safety of his mother, his brother, his nieces and nephews living in the impoverished Asian nation of about 27 million, known for the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest, which straddles it and neighboring China.

“I tried to contact them,” Gurung, 30, said, adding that cellular signals were down. “And landlines were dead.”

About 10 hours later, Gurung finally connected and learned that while they were shaken and scared, his immediate family had survived. But other relatives living in the more rural and hardest hit villages remain missing.

“We can't contact them,” he said. “And there have been lots of casualties.”

Gurung met Monday with more than 15 members of the Corridor Nepalese Community organization in Cedar Rapids to find a strategy to help. The group — among more than 560 Nepal-born Iowa residents, according to 2013 U.S. Census numbers — is planning a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. Tuesday at NewBo City Market and a fundraising campaign in the weeks and months to come.

“If I could, I would go to Nepal right now and help,” Gurung said.

The West Des Moines-based Iowa Nepalese Association also has been working over the past few days to connect its community in Iowa with family in the devastated nation.

Two of the Iowa group's community members are in Kathmandu, acting as direct ground contacts in the rescue and recovery efforts, according to association President Roshan Pradhan. And fundraising has begun, but the group has a long way to go, said Bikal Adhikari, 41, of West Des Moines.

“Whatever we have is not enough,” Adhikari, a board member. “It's very sad.”

Tip: 37 established, independently vetted charities where you can give your money or time to the Nepal relief effort

Amit Ranjan, 31, of Coralville, is from Nepal and affiliated with the state's Nepalese association. He said his parents live in a village more than 200 miles from Kathmandu. They are safe, but they're spending all their time outdoors and are terrified — especially his mother.

“It's been hard for my father to calm her down,” Ranjan said.

His grandmother, in her 90s, fell during the initial quake and has been sleeping in a vehicle, as torrential rain has added to the chaos for those afraid to sleep indoors, Ranjan said.

Social media has been imperative in keeping Nepalese residents in Iowa updated on their loved ones' conditions, as has the Red Cross, which is coordinating safety checks, and organizations like Google and Skype, which are offering free calls to Nepal, Ranjan said.

Nepal native Binod Sharma, 31 of Cedar Rapids, said he's relieved to know those closest to him survived the quake, but he is worried about their ability to stay healthy with dwindling food, water, shelter and medical resources. With bodies piling up and little place to burn them, Sharma said, he has concerns about sanitation.

“That is the biggest nightmare,” he said. “What if we don't get resources there in time?”

Suresh Basnet, 43, of Cedar Rapids, said he also worries about the mental state of the survivors living in fear, with aftershocks seemingly constant.

“They are getting so exhausted,” he said, adding that one of his relatives decided to sleep indoors after deciding, “I don't care if I die.”

Hundreds of aftershocks have followed the first tremor, which hit northwest of Kathmandu at 6:11 a.m. Saturday Nepal time.

Bill Barnhart, assistant professor in the University of Iowa Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the quake was not a surprise, as the region sits on a “very active plate boundary” between the continents of India and Eurasia.

“In fact, many scientists thought it would be bigger than it was,” he said.

Even the extensive aftershocks are following “normal” patterns, Barnhart said.

“The larger the earthquake, the larger the aftershocks,” he said. “There will be thousands of these, and they will continue on for weeks.”

The Nepal quake lasted 60 to 80 seconds and was the same strength as the San Francisco quake of 1906 that killed about 3,000 and devastated much of the city.

The largest aftershock from the earthquake was 6.7, which Barnhart also called normal. But the question of how long the region will be safe when the aftershocks taper is unknown.

“When these happen, they cause stress changes in other faults in the area,” he said. “It can relax other faults, or it can encourage other earthquakes.”

Among those killed in the earthquake were at least 18 at the base of Mount Everest — the world's tallest peak. An avalanche triggered by the quake killed or injured dozens stationed at Everest's base camp and left others stranded on the mountain or missing.

Former UI student and Iowa native Charlie Wittmack, 38, became the first Iowan to summit Everest in 2003.

He told The Gazette on Monday that the Everest community is small. Since the earthquake, he's been following 40-some friends who've used Facebook to “check in” around the area.

Wittmack — now living in Charlotte, N.C., and running a consulting firm that works with public charities and corporations — said he's heartbroken not only for the climbers, but for the Nepalese residents.

“It's really a mess,” he said. “It's a tragedy in a place that had no safety net.”

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