Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nepal: Overdue Update!

So by now if you are still following the bog (and I thank you for that), you had to have realized I am horrible at providing regular updates.  That is partly because we have been very busy the last few weeks and also because I usually type these at night when I am too tired to want to sit in front of the computer.

That said I am a bit anxious to provide you with an update on what has been happening!

We have had a lot of transition on our team the last few weeks.  About 10 days ago, our once team of 12 was down to about 5 of us working for a couple of days!  Thankfully we are back up to eight (8) current team members. 

We added Sulemon, another of our friends from Pakistan followed a short day later by David our resident New Zealander.  Then this week we added Nazia, also from Pakistan, and Silo from India within the home Territory here in India East (the Mizoram region).  We have had a few departures including today Macdonald and Carol, who was our team leader the last 4 weeks, both headed back to Pakistan.

With transition always comes adjustment and new challenges.  The team leader transition is made smooth and easy by George, one of our current team members, taking over the helm.   That said it has been quite busy and a lot has been happening here.

The biggest news since my last update (well maybe not and I may have mentioned it before, but it was a big deal for me so I’ll mention it again) is that we got our tents released from Customs!  We had 1,000 tents shipping from Pakistan that we thought for a brief moment may never arrive between customs issues in Pakistan, and shipping issues, followed by horrendous issues here in Nepal receiving.  The good news is they are here now and not a moment too soon, with the monsoon season now upon us.

The monsoons also bring with them added complications.  Imagine a mountainous terrain, with many villages, recently struck by a major earthquake, followed by frequent and sometimes intense aftershocks, that now must worry about landslides and heavy intense rainfall…..that my friends is this year’s monsoon season here in Nepal!

Aside from the weather, we have been going strong with distributions these last few weeks.  We are distributing everything from food, to tents, to tarps, to blankets, even school supplies.  The distributions we do are basically two types.  One is for the camps we manage, which range from 80 to over 200 families. 

The others are for large areas called VDC’s, which are Village Development Councils.  A VDC is similar to a county, which is then broken into Wards, usual with 9 wards in each.  These range in size from a small one of roughly 600+ families, to a larger one we signed on with today which is over 3,000 families.  The distributions we do here can be as large as 1,200 families and take a significant amount of time to plan and coordinate. 

Through our distributions thus far we have given out over 300,000kg’s of food (over 750k lbs…in American terms), over 3,000 tarps, soon almost 500 tents, school supplies to more than 800 children, along with blankets, cooking kits, hygiene, kits and more…..its been a bit busy!

Within those busy days there have been some real highlights.  Not the least of which was a trip to a place called Thame, in the Solucumbu region.  It is a remote mountain trekking village on the opposite side of a valley from Mt. Everest.  We had received a specific request for help there through a trekker in the states who has relationships with the village. 

After our initial flight there was scratched due to weather, we did finally reach Thame a few days later.  The cloud cover was pretty significant, so we didn’t really get a chance to appreciate the true beauty of the area until we just about hit the ground there.

There is a bit of a stigmatism here when it comes to the Everest region.  Because they have connection to Trekkers and Trekking organizations all over the world, they feel as though their needs are taken care of and therefore don’t need any additional help.  Unfortunately, that is far from the case.

We received word through a trekker that has a connection to Thame, and after assessing their quickly realized their needs are just as significant as other hard hit areas.  In fact, they are further complicated by the brutal weather conditions and winds, as well as the logistical challenges in reaching there.  Only larger helicopters can reach these remote villages and due to the altitude the payload must be reduce to allow for extra fuel.

Most of the village was totally destroyed.  A few homes were recognizable in the damage, but none were anywhere near livable.  After a brief one hour assessment and discussion of their need, we had a short tour of the makeshift village they constructed from tents and tarps (most purchased on their own or already owned) before departing.  We did have a unique opportunity to share in prayer with the largely Buddhist community, each of us praying in our own ways for each other.

When we left we inquired about the chance at seeing Everest while up in the region (hey your this close right, you can’t not ask!) and fortunately for us the clouds had lifted just enough for us to attempt the trip. 

We flew for roughly 10 minutes up the eastern valley and into the valley which is home to the lower Everest base camp.  This is the area that every Everest climber has to pass through.  It is amazing seeing the huge snow capped mountains all around in every direction.  For the brief, 8-9 minutes we were there the cloud cover was perfect and we could see just about everything.

Our pilot was probably the best I had flown with since being here.  That is saying a lot as well, as every pilot here is good and we have been told by numerous people (including many foreign pilots and flight experts) that pilots here are some of the best in the world because of the complicated terrain and flying conditions.  He was able to maneuver the chopper with ease and give all 5 of us inside views in each direction….clearly he had done this kind of thing many times before!

Right before we turn to make the flight back he pointed into the distance and shouted “the peak with the cloud coming off of it”….. That was when we got our brief opportunity to see the tallest mountain in the world!

Needless to say everyone on board was quite excited in that moment.  It was as if the lord pulled back the curtain for us for a few minutes so that we can see the beauty of his work.  It was a sort of small thank you for the work we have been doing.

So that is the update I have for you today.  I will post picture soon…since I know many are interested (especially since everyone has asked be if I’ve been to Everest since arriving…as if it is a local theme park or something). 

It has been a busy, challenging and rewarding last few weeks here on the ground.  I am very much anticipating the last week of work here and even more so the trip home…..well not necessarily the ridiculously long flight, but certainly seeing the family once again!

Until nest time!

Bob Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Nepal Deployment: Update 6/1

It has been quite some time since my last update, so I thought I should log another entry to let you know what has been happening here.

It has been a very busy and productive couple of weeks. My roll in logistics has a lot of paperwork and moving parts with it, so it feels as though there is always something up in the air or needing attention. We have had some pretty big successes. We have managed to tap into free resources from the World Food Program (WFP) for storage and larger transports. This can be a bit of a double edged sword as you then fall at their mercy (as we found out last week, which I will tell you about), but overall it saves us a lot of money, so it is worth it in the end.

We have continued the helicopter flights to the remote villages I spoke of in my last update, which we are not up to a total of 18 villages we are serving. If you don't know about that you can read and see pics on our bog: ( plug I know!). So far through those helicopter flights, we have distributed well over 5,200 kg of food (which is about 11,400 lbs) as well as over 160 tarps, 60 solar lamps and about 35 solar chargers. It is challenging as we are cargo limited on most of the flights for weight, so it all must be done in small chunks. We are chipping away at the need though, as well as reassessing regularly.

We have accomplished quite a few major distributions as well. In Ramachamp District, we finally got the large scale distribution off the ground on the third try. The first time, one of the five empty trucks on its way to pick up goods, was driven off a cliff injuring the driver, causing us to push back a day. That next day an aftershock (which are still occurring regularly) triggered a large landslide blocking the only road in. After a 3 day delay to clear the road, the team was finally able to get off for the distribution to more than 1,200 families in multiple mountain villages.

The logistics are complicated everywhere. We had a distribution in Sindhupolchak District last week of a truck load of tarps. The tarps, compliments of USAID (our tax dollars hard at work here in Nepal!), come in rolls that are in boxes weighing 55 kg (about 120 lbs) and are a bit difficult to load.

That particular day got off to the wrong foot when our WFP truck was almost 3 hours late, making the already 4 hour drive seem even longer on the day. The plan was to do the distribution which is in a "resort" called The Last Resort, located at the end of a long road in the mountainous region. It is a tent camp site basically, but has served as a central point for distribution by us for some of the mountain villages (some traveling more than 6 hours each way down the mountain then back up). It is hard to imagine when you see the landscape what people have to go through to get such simple and often minimal assistance in the big picture.

When we finally arrived we had expected a crew of people to help off load, as well as overnight accommodation. Due to a bit of a mis-communication, there wasn't much help on hand short of the staff from the camp, so the 10-12 of us had to unload (our team was only 5 making the trip). The challenge was that these heavy and awkward boxes had to be off loaded from the truck, up this sketchy set of rusty stairs, onto a swinging/suspension bridge about 150-200 yards long, stretching high above the river on the valley floor (it has to be at least a few hundred feet up). The boxes then had to be carried across and into the open area in the middle of the camp.

We made surprisingly good time unloading in just over an hour and a half, but everyone was quite exhausted afterwards. This, then mixed with the long 4 hour ride home due to the accommodation mix-up, made for a very long day for all involved!

The ride up was incredible as we were surrounded by this beautiful mountain scenery that was then set apart by complete and total destruction of villages along the main road we were using. We drove through probably a dozen totally destroyed villages, each seemingly worse than the one before, until reaching the camp. Some had already begun to construct temporary "homes", which are more accurately little one room shacks. Others were still sifting for things in the rubble of what was once their homes and in many cases businesses as well.

The other difficulty, as we experienced with the Ramechamp situation, is constant landslides. As we drove the road (which is THE main road for the area) we came across two or three different stretches that had experience major landslides. These landslides often block the road for days cutting off the villages until things are cleared.

The other hazard is that with the major moving of earth comes huge boulders that roll into already damaged or destroyed villages causing new destruction and fears for remaining villagers (some were bigger than the SUV we were traveling in). Needless to say our drivers were very cautious driving through these areas and very aware of the constant dangers up the mountain. We could hear rocks sliding down the mountain regularly while doing the off load.

We also have been dealing with the ongoing saga of 1,000 family sized shelter tents from Pakistan. These tents are desperately needed in preparation for the coming monsoon season, but Customs regulations mixed with the cumbersome process of moving cargo from out of the country, has caused a lot of delay. We are hopeful that they will arrive finally come this Wednesday, June 3rd, but this delivery has been more than three weeks in the making. There are many moving parts with big deliveries and it doesn't take much to experience significant setbacks unfortunately.

It has been a challenging and rewarding couple of weeks and we will continue to plug away daily and the large task in front of us. Everyone worries about aftershocks, but even they just become part of the routine after awhile. We have one that was a 5.6 since I have been here that only lasted about 10-12 seconds, but you sort of just get used to them after a while. They have spread out quite a bit as time has gone on and the smaller ones I don't even notice any more (smaller shocks remind me of the basement of our headquarter back in Philly when the subway bases through!).

All is going well here overall. Our team is in the midst of transition and will decrease in size as well over the next few days. Colonel Carol Telfer (Territorial Commander from Pakistan) has taken over as our new lead. We are concerned as less people (with no replacements in the immediate future) likely means more work for all of us remaining.  That said, everyone pitches in and helps out wherever and whenever is necessary, but there will likely be much more need for that on the horizon as our team of 12 gets cut to 8.

They are caring for us well here at the cafe we are staying. We also have great interpreters both on the team and available to us from the community, so that has made things easier as well. I have picked up a few words, but my Nepali is still leaving a lot to be desired (pretty much everything actually save for the 3-4 words I now know!) Thank goodness for the Google translate app and sign language (or at least using my hands, which is not at all actual sign language, but more of motioning in certain directions with hands).

Continue to pray for the people of Nepal who have a VERY long road ahead of them. Also keep our team in prayer as we go through the transitional period. We look forward to new folks arriving in the coming weeks and things continuing to move forward as they have. 

Pictures to follow soon...

Bob Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nepal: The First 10 Days

It has been an interesting 10 days on the ground here to say the least.  I would imagine, anytime one that travels to a foreign country, in the aftermath of a disaster, you are bound to find it at least somewhat interesting.

I didn't really know what to expect (as you would probably imagine), but I also tried not to come with any preconceived notions.  I wondered most about accommodation (particularly when I heard we were living/working in an SA cafe), but have been pleasantly surprised. 

We stay at the Sisters Cafe, Salon and Parlor (yes all three in one!).  It is a cafe on the first floor, which serves a full breakfast and lunch menu in addition to coffee and typical cafe bakery fare.  On the second floor is an office, massage and facial parlor and a hair and nail salon, all of which are for ladies only.  The third and top floor is an attic/lounge type of space.  This area doubles as our office and sleeping quarters (well at least for the men, the ladies usually sleep outside in tents or in the salon).  It has really been a good setup for both working and sleeping.  Plus the food is pretty good at lunch too!

The other big worry when traveling to another country is almost always the language barrier.  There have been some moments (especially with cab drivers) where some things get lost in translation, but that has been quite manageable as well.  The regular folks we work with all speak pretty good English, and we have some good interpreters working with us as well.

The work has been extremely rewarding.  There have been a few frustrating moments (mostly with processes outside of our control) here and there, but much of that is overshadowed by the work we are trying to accomplish.  It is humbling at every chance to get out and be with the people and to see not only the difficult conditions they now have to live in (many in tents or tiny temporary huts) but the resilience as well.
I don't get out into the field as much as some of the team members.  There are a few that seem to always be running from camp to camp or organizing a distributions.  My role here is to help keep those folks plugging along by supporting the logistical needs behind the scenes.

One of my functions is coordinating, scheduling and working with some of our partners (which sometimes also means the necessary evil of filling out forms and processing paperwork).  One of our largest partners here in this operation is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship).  They work through a contracted helicopter company here named Fish Tail to provide heli flights up to the mountain villages that are not reachable by any other means (unless you are interested in hiking up steep mountain sides carrying supplies and equipment for hours or in some cases days).

MAF is sponsored by a grant from UKAID which covers a large portion of the cost for the trips.  This means that we can fly personnel and supplies into otherwise unreachable areas for about 10% of the normal cost to do so.  Needless to say, we do a lot of flying!  In my first 10 days here we have scheduled almost 10 flight hours (which is a lot considering the average flight is only 20-25 minutes in length).  I find myself there almost daily processing request forms and working out the details of flight times, locations, passangers and cargo.

The next biggest partner I have to deal with is the Logistics Cluster managed by World Food Programme or WFP as they are known here on the ground (Cheap Plug....for more on my cluster thoughts and what exactly that term means in relief speak, see my post from a few days ago on clusters).  The WFP offers free resources such as, transportation (both road from contracted trucks and air through UNHAS - United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) and both short and long term storage options.  They are one of the big dogs in the relief arena.  So that is the upside....  The downside is there is a lot of hoops and paperwork to jump through.....a lot!
It is hard to do a response of this scale without working closely with partners.  We do a lot of networking, coordinating and partnering in order to help accomplish the goal of providing the best support we can to affected communities.  International partners such as Samaritans Purse, MedAir, Mountain Child to name a few, as well as local NGO's from here in Nepal all play key roles.

I have gotten a chance to get out and do some good old fashion hard work or manual labor.  We have done a distribution or two since I've been here for which I participated, as well as loading and transportation of traps for distribution (one of the biggest needs going right now with the monsoon season fast approaching).  There is of course the heli flight up into the mountains on my first day doing the assessment and giving out rice (which is likely to remain both a highlight and one of the most humbling moments). 

The team we have here is extremely diverse as well making it an even more interesting experience.  Our team leader Damaris, is German (but a UK convert of late as she works for IHQ Emergency Services), our incoming team leader and current camp management lead Carol, is currently Territorial Commander (a big boss in the SA for all the non Army folks who may have tripped into this blog) for our Pakistan Territory of the Army, but originally from Scotland in the UK. In addition to Carol, both George and Macdonald on our team are also from Pakistan; Sharon and VT are both Salvation Army officers from India (the Eastern Territory, which is also the home territory of Nepal); Petr has joined our team from Czech Republic, where he serves as a corps officer; Kathy is here from the SA Social Justice Office in NYC, but originally from New Zealand; Myself and two other Americans Mike and Amanda (both from Hawaii), round out our current team....and of course our many local Nepali friends that helps us on a daily basis.

Well I know this has been a rather lengthy post, so to those of you that have stuck with it I hope it was a good read!  For those that stopped reading, we forgive you!  

Until next time....

Bobby Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

Nepal: Photo's from First 10 Days

Outside of Sister's Cafe, during an aftershock
Our small stock pile of food (rice and dahl) for distribution

Preparing for Distribution in Bhaktapur District (we manage two camps here)

Some of the typically seen damage from the Bhaktapur area

One of the larger camps that we manage. 

Our storage space at the Benepa Hub, managed by Handicap International

Briefing with our team and the IHQ PR team

Trucks loaded for distribution (we typically use smaller trucks as larger have difficulty on mountain roads)

Cutting of tarps given through IOM by USAID (tarps come in 60 meter rolls)

Loading out boxes of tarps up for distribution

Team member Mike with villagers who are holding a solar charging pad that we give out to remote villages

Team member Sharon at our storage hub with 350 cases of donated USAID tarps

Team member Kathy (center with gray hair) with two local Nepali volunteers discussing with village leaders