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Seven days in the quake zone
by Patrick Fuller

Apartment buildings were cut in half exposing the final, private moments of their residents before tragedy struck.

On 26 January as parades to mark Republic Day celebrations were getting under way across India, a massive earthquake struck the north-western state of Gujarat. Bhuj in Gujarat's Kutch district was one of the worst-hit towns. Patrick Fuller, regional information delegate for the Federation, recorded his impressions as one of the first international relief workers to arrive there.

The low rumble which shook my house in New Delhi was the first indication that the week ahead was going to be one of the most intense in my life. I turned on the television and a news flash announced that an earthquake had struck the state of Gujarat. Initial casualties were reported to be low. I called Bob McKerrow, Federation head of the regional delegation in New Delhi and we immediately began contacting colleagues at the Indian Red Cross. As information began to filter in from the branches in the quake zone, it became apparent by 10h30 that the potential scale of this disaster was enormous even by Indian standards, where devastating natural disasters occur with a tragic frequency.

The next morning Alan Bradbury, Federation regional disaster preparedness delegate, and I took the first flight to Ahmedabad, commercial capital of Gujarat. Upon arrival we could not help but wonder if the reports of devastation had been exaggerated. Buildings along the road from the airport to the Red Cross office appeared untouched and the everyday bustle in the streets seemed normal.

The next few hours proved us wrong as we set about assessing the scale of destruction in different pockets of the city. Wherever a building had collapsed, tension was high with local residents and police struggling to hold back the crowds of curious onlookers. A ten-storey building appeared to have been sliced in two. One-half had collapsed, the other half remained standing with bisected rooms open to the sky, exposing the final, private moments of former residents. Friends, relatives and neighbours desperately searched for missing loved ones. Two men rushed to the site carrying a car jack in the vain hope that it would lift a huge concrete slab under which the cries of a child had been heard.

Ahmedabad was in a terrible state but Alan and I knew that the worst was yet to come. The epicentre of the quake was over 400 kilometres away near the ancient town of Bhuj in the district of Kutch. Almost no information had emerged from there, but we knew that power and telecommunications were down and the airport was closed.

From relief to recovery

The earthquake which struck India's Gujarat state on 26 January 2001 was the country's worst for half a century, leaving at least 20,000 people dead, 166,000 injured and more than 15 million affected in one way or another.

The Indian Red Cross (IRCS), supported by the Federation, ICRC and sister societies, was at the forefront of the relief effort, distributing a range of much-needed emergency items, including tents, tarpaulins and blankets; night-time temperatures in the days following the quake hovered around zero.
At the request of the IRCS, the Federation deployed a field assessment coordination team and seven emergency response units focusing on health, water-sanitation, telecommunications and logistics activities. Particularly crucial was the establishment of a 350-bed referral hospital, which served as the main health facility in Bhuj - a city of some 150,000 people close to the quake's epicentre - for several weeks after the disaster.

At the peak of the emergency operation, some 150 expatriate delegates from more than 15 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies were assigned to the disaster zone, many of them based in a tented compound in Bhuj where living conditions were harsh.

The Movement's response to the IRCS request for assistance, launched at the end of January, was rapid and generous with some CHF 30 million donated by around 40 contributors for a four-month relief phase.
The emphasis of the operation has now switched to recovery and rehabilitation with a major programme under way for the next 12 to 18 months. It is focused on health, water-sanitation, disaster preparedness and response, capacity building for the IRCS and affected communities, any further relief needs and reconstruction of public buildings in the health and education sectors.

Over 90 delegates and seven Red Cross emergency response units were deployed to the most affected regions within a week after the event.

 

A city in ruins

At 01h00 on Sunday morning I arrived in Bhuj. Groups of people crouched around small fires on each street corner were the only signs of life in the town. I found the local branch of the Indian Red Cross where the branch secretary Dr. Morbia and his extended family were sleeping in the backs of cars or on mattresses in the middle of the street.

Everyone in Bhuj was too frightened to return home. Adrenaline was pumping through my system and it was bitterly cold. No sooner had I fallen asleep I was awoken by a violent judder at 06h30. The neighbourhood came alive with a cacophony of children's screams and excited chatter. They had lived through 40 seconds of horror the previous morning and were terrified that it might happen again.

The scale of the disaster was evident everywhere. Houses and ancient temples in the old town were reduced to rubble and a population of some 70,000 people had vanished. Thousands were presumed dead and even more had fled the town.

The streets of Bhuj were filled with residents sitting atop their salvaged possessions on trucks and tractors. To add to the chaos anxious relatives were coming in to the town in search of missing family members.

Everyone had been traumatized by this disaster. Most had lost friends or relatives and few had slept during the past 48 hours. I asked the state minister of health for a meeting later in the day, he pointed to his jeep and said, "Come and find me in my office."

The arrival of emergency relief


Hundreds of thousands of people required tents or plastic sheeting for shelter and blankets to stay warm during the cold nights. Medical equipment and materials were desperately needed as efforts to care for the injured gathered pace.

Within 50 hours the first Red Cross relief supplies began to arrive. A convoy of trucks rolled in with 30 tonnes of blankets and plastic sheeting from the Swiss Red Cross, and more trucks were on their way with supplies from the Indian Red Cross's warehouse in Delhi. On Tuesday the first cargo flights landed at Bhuj airport. The logistical hurdles were immense. The lack of lifting gear at the airport and shortage of trucks and volunteers meant that we were working around the clock to offload the aircraft.

Within a week over 90 delegates and seven emergency response units (ERU) from Red Cross societies around the world had arrived in Bhuj. The Norwegian and Finnish Red Cross Societies set up a field hospital and the Japanese Red Cross sent a team of professionals and a mobile medical clinic. The German Red Cross dispatched a water and sanitation ERU to supply clean water to the hospital and the British Red Cross sent in an ERU of logisticians. Daily flights were arriving in Bhuj and at the same time convoys of trucks rolled out of the Red Cross compound each morning, laden with blankets, tents and tarpaulins for distribution in outlying villages.

 

 

Personal reflections

The week had been one long emotional roller coaster with a succession of highs and lows. Western journalists and aid workers alike, we were all shocked by what we had seen but our experiences were sometimes shared through moments of laughter - perhaps an instinctive coping mechanism to counter our distress.

Flying back to Delhi I reflected on some of the remarkable people I had met during that week. The volunteer doctors who had been working for 72 hours with virtually no sleep. With no water for three days they had resorted to drinking the saline drips meant for their patients. I thought of Hirin the young soldier, who walked into my tent to volunteer his help. Despite losing over 100 of his colleagues in the quake, every day he mobilized 50 volunteers to offload the aircraft. Then there was the army surgeon, who single-handedly had carried out 45 amputations of crushed limbs in the first 24 hours.

The true scale of this tragedy will probably never be known. In Hindu tradition, families who have lost loved ones undergo a ritual shaving to mark a ten-day mourning period. The thousands of freshly shaved scalps that can be seen across Kutch today bear testimony to the massive loss.

Patrick Fuller
Patrick Fuller is Federation regional information delegate in New Delhi.



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