The Story of the Flood
Saturday, August 16, 2014
by Patty Breech, BlinkNow Volunteer Fellow
Floods are sneaky. They start with a few drops, the same as any old rainstorm. Few other natural disasters can tiptoe in under the radar like a flood can – there's no gentle start to an earthquake; no one ever sees the beginnings of a brushfire and thinks nothing of it.
We welcomed the first few drops of this flood before we knew what it was. Last Wednesday night after it had been raining for a couple hours, one of the girls asked me if I wanted to go play on the roof. I responded with an enthusiastic yes – one thing I've learned about monsoon season here in Nepal is to enjoy the breaks in the heat whenever they come, however brief. So we went up onto the roof and splashed around until we were soaked, pretending to do the backstroke in the puddles and singing at the top of our lungs. Those clothes that I wore that night haven't dried yet, because it hasn't stopped raining since.
When that Wednesday evening rainstorm continued solidly through the night and the next day, I told the other volunteers that this reminded me of the flood I experienced in Boulder last year. This was how it had started, a steady rainfall that simply didn't stop for five days. I was only half serious at the time, never really thinking that Surkhet would face the same horrors that Boulder had. I was sweeping out the water from under my bed when I said it; our 4th floor rooms at the house are notorious for having leaky windows if the rain slants in at the right angle, and I imagined that would be the extent of the damage.
Friday was a day off for students but not teachers. I was supposed to give my first faculty training on technology that morning, and I wondered at breakfast if the rain would prevent any of the teachers from making the trip to school. By this time our lawn at the house was under water, and the boys' rooms on the first level had half an inch of water on the floor that had dripped in from an upper balcony. When I showed up to the office, the teachers were all there and were very upset – the town was flooding, they said, some areas were bad, really bad, our students were in danger, and we needed to do something. Kelly immediately sprang into action, calling Maggie in Kathmandu and putting together a plan. We have some really amazing, really dedicated teachers on staff, and it was no more apparent than in this moment. One group called every guardian on file to find out if their house was still standing, another made a list of every student we knew who lived in the neighborhoods in danger, while teams on motorbikes went out to scout the areas near the river and report back. We pulled winter blankets out of storage from the house and brought them to the school, and told all the aunties & uncles that we were expecting to feed a much larger group for lunch.
The aunties & uncles are the other true heroes in all of this. We'd been operating on a skeleton crew all week. Daju and Bauju had gone to their home village for a few days; Basanti & Shangkhar had traveled to Kathmandu with Top & Maggie; and Amrica was in and out of the hospital. The aunties and uncles who were left were each easily doing the work of 2 or 3 people, and not complaining for a minute. We are so blessed to have such a dedicated team here.
When we found people from the Kopila community who needed help, whose homes had been destroyed by the river's new force, we sent the school bus out to fetch them. The roads were bad, with chunks of land missing from the side of lanes, bridges washed out, and rivers flooding through what used to be pavement, but I'm pretty sure Ganesh Uncle, our driver, could drive that bus through anything.
One of our teachers, Rachana, lives in an area that was hit especially hard by the flood. When we pulled up in the school bus, she was waiting with a line of people. Five families, she said, five families whose homes had been wiped away and who had nowhere to go. 41 people, she said to me, I'm sorry it's so many, it's 41 people, the others can go stay with relatives but not these 41, they have nowhere to go, nothing, did we have room for 41 people? Then she burst into tears. I held her for a few minutes while she sobbed, all five feet of her shaking from head to toe. I told her yes, yes, of course, there was plenty of room at the school, put them all on the bus, we can do this, we've got this. Rachana is the inspiring elder sister to 6 younger siblings, the woman who runs a support group for local girls in her neighborhood. Water was flowing around both sides of her own house but she didn't care, she was too worried about everyone else.
Back at the school, Kelly had everything under amazing control. Our teachers and our older students had stayed long past dark, doing anything and everything that was needed. A list was made with everyone's names, genders, and family groups. Anyone who came in and out of the gate was checked against the list to make sure everyone was accounted for. Women and children were given sleeping quarters in the classrooms, while men spread out blankets to sleep on the stage area. Our kids were running back and forth from the house, bringing diapers and clothes and every extra blanket & sheet we could find. Jagat, our medical technician, was doling out medicine and applying bandages late into the night. Enough food for everyone had appeared as if by magic, thanks to the aunties & uncles. Our night security guard from the house transferred to the school and kept watch over everyone all night long. By the end of it all, we had 200 people sleeping under the school roof. 15 students from our school had lost their homes and everything inside, as had 3 women from the Women's Center, 4 of our aunties, and 2 teachers at first count, possibly more.
More than one person remarked to me that day that they had never seen anything like this in Surkhet before. There was always monsoon, but there was never this. There remarked that the price of land in Surkhet is so high right now that many families have no choice but to build a mud hut on the riverbanks, and Surkhet's population is growing every day with more & more people moving here from rural villages. Similar to Boulder, Surkhet is a valley surrounded by mountains. Everything drains to here, and when the mountains receive just as much rain as we do, it all comes flooding down to the lowest point. Last September, I watched the creeks in my town turn milky brown and surge to four blocks wide, washing into houses and over lawns and through cars. It's amazing how powerless any community in any country really is in the face of a flood.
This morning, Shova Auntie had tea and breakfast ready in the kitchen when I woke up. I gave her a long hug as soon as I saw her. She had lost everything the day before, her house totally gone, and then showed up to work the next day like it was any other. She is a strong, strong woman, just like every auntie on this team.
A meeting was held at school today to divide up responsibilities among everyone. We made a rainwater collection crew, a bathroom cleaning crew, a cooking crew, a dishwashing crew. The group at the school has been an awesome bunch, everyone pitching in to help where it's needed and our older students shining in their leadership roles. The real question we face now is what comes next. All roads into Surkhet are blocked by mudslides or washed out bridges or some other flood-related disaster, meaning not only can Basanti, Shangkhar, Top, Maggie, Daju, and Bauju not make it back here, but neither can fuel or food or aid workers. Power has been out for days, which causes surprising little disruption to daily life here (everyone is accustomed to 10-12 hours of "load shedding" every day anyway), but might be a problem if we can't operate our pump to get water out of the well. We've got generator power for now, and we're conserving the fuel we do have to try to make it last as long as possible. We also need to find a long-term solution for the 200 refugees in our care, since the school can't hold them forever. The good news is, the rain is starting to let up and we're told the army is working on the roads.
You, our support community, have been so wonderful through all of this. Our situation is much better than it would have been without the gifts we've received from all of you over the years. Our school has power because you gave us solar panels. Our house has water because you dug us a well, and our pump can operate because you bought us a generator. Our students' families were rescued from harm's way because you bought us a bus. Our school is a shelter because you built these walls.
Sometimes it seems like we can't catch a break around here, then all of you start showering us in your love and affection and it all seems worth it. The flood fund we've created will do many amazing things for this community, thanks to you guys, and will ensure that we'll be around to support them in whatever comes next. Thanks for all that you do, we couldn't do any of this without you.