Covering Natural Disaster in Nepal

Over the last three weeks, a pair of powerful earthquakes shook Nepal, resulting in the deaths of more than 8,000 people. The Dart Center spoke with journalists Russell Lewis and Amantha Perera, and clinician Patrice Keats, about the challenges of covering this tragedy, including verifying information in a time of emergency, speaking with families of missing people, and working through the personal challenges of covering trauma.

A powerful earthquake shook Nepal again on Tuesday, less than three weeks after a devastating quake killed more than 8,000 people in the country. Dozens of deaths and more than a thousand injuries have been reported.

To offer a broader perspective on the current situation in Nepal and advice for reporters on the ground, the Dart Center's Ariel Ritchin spoke with NPR reporter and Ochberg Fellow Russell Lewis, who has just returned from covering the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu and its aftermath; Sri Lanka-based foreign correspondent and Ochberg Fellow Amantha Perera, who covered the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami; and Patrice Keats, a Canadian researcher who specializes in the effects of witnessing trauma and also works with counselors and psychologists in Nepal. The following is an edited version of those correspondences, which took place before Tuesday's earthquake. 



Ariel Ritchin: You just spent eight days reporting out of Nepal. Power is back in most areas of Kathmandu and the Internet is mostly up and running. But tens of thousands are homeless, sleeping outside. What kinds of information does the public need now? And how much access do people have, to the news, to social media, to their family and friends?

Russell Lewis: The biggest issue in any natural disaster is providing information to those who need it. It’s easy but also complicated. How do you reach people who have lost their homes, power, access to the Internet? It’s one of the most challenging aspects of a disaster. The government provides some information. The media reports what it finds. People trade information with what they’re hearing and of course there are the rumors. Rumors spread unbelievably fast and it’s one of the hardest aspects to tamp down. The newspapers in Kathmandu kept publishing and one of the region’s most prolific and respected journalists – Kunda Dixit – proved to be a great source of news throughout the ordeal. People were tweeting questions at him and he was answering with what he knew. Twitter continues to be a great source of near real-time information. Many journalists and publications were updating facts and important details seemingly day and night.

AR: Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has said that the death toll in Nepal will continue to rise in the coming days and weeks – many are still trapped under the rubble. Does the knowledge that there are still people unaccounted for change the way you approach your assignments?

RL: Not really. In any major disaster, there are people who are ‘missing’. At one point, we heard that thousands of people were unaccounted for. But what that usually means is that a family hasn’t heard from a loved one and they report that person as missing. Often the missing person is in a shelter or staying with friends or just out of contact. The fact that people are missing doesn’t really change how we approach an assignment. We’re there to tell the stories – how are people coping? What are the challenges? What’s being done to help those who have lost everything?

AR: In covering a story like this, what do you find most challenging?

RL: For me the most difficult aspect is looking into the eyes of people who have lost everything and asking them difficult questions about what they’ll do next. Nepal is a poor country but its people are proud and have a great “can do” spirit. In one of the mountain villages we visited, the entire place was almost in ruins. And yet there are people banding together to do what needs to be done. They were going house-to-house and salvaging all they could: scraps of metal, bricks… anything that could be saved and used in the rebuilding. When people have lost everything, you’d think they would be at their worst. But time and time again, you see people buoyed by their spirit and a real sense of camaraderie.

AR: When reporting, how do you contend with your own needs?

RL: NPR’s journalists are trained to be self-sufficient. We undergo several days of ‘hostile environment’ training, which covers everything from emergency first aid to dealing with hostile crowds. We have satellite phones to stay connected with the outside world and to file our stories. I went to Nepal with a tent, backpack, emergency trauma kit and enough food for four days. 

At the beginning of any disaster, that’s when things are at their toughest. Supply lines have often failed. So you need to be self-sufficient. I spent my first day scouting for food and water. It was actually easier to find water than food. Eventually stores began to reopen in Kathmandu and my concerns over logistics and supplies began to subside. The region only has one international airport with a single runway and limited places to park. The infrastructure began to strain. Had that runway been damaged by the earthquake or closed because of an incident, it would have made the situation a lot more dire. You never expect these kinds of assignments to be easy. They’re almost always difficult. You have to roll with the punches and expect problems. We’re trained to sort through the issues and figure out ways to tell the stories.  

AR: You’ve covered many disasters for NPR including the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 and the super typhoon, which decimated Tacloban in the Philippines in 2013. What are some of the lessons you learned that might be useful for a journalist working in Nepal, covering the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster there?

RL: The hardest part is telling the stories without becoming too personally affected by them. The international media comes in, stays for a week or two and then leaves. But the local press live there day after day. They tell the stories of what’s happening and why. But they are the ones who also see the destruction and trauma day-after-day. It wears on you; drags you down. It’s actually important for local journalists to take breaks. Go away on short holidays or anything to give you a respite from the destruction. It’s one of the most difficult things for a local journalist to do: chronicling the destruction and loss of life in a community that is their own. Of course there will be the milestones to contend with too: “it’s been one month since the earthquake hit…”, “two months since …”, “six months since…”, “one year since…” There are always these constant reminders. So as much as journalists feel compelled by these stories, they need to remember to take care of themselves and understand that it’s okay to be frustrated, mad and sad (sometimes all at the same time) when reporting these events.



AR: Amantha, you spent a full month covering the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which left more than 200,000 dead and over a million displaced. What are some of the lessons you learned that might be helpful for someone reporting in Nepal?

Amantha Perera: I remember the first day. It was horrific. There were bodies everywhere, injured everywhere, people crying, people screaming. Anyone would get overwhelmed by such scenes of absolute destruction. 

The first lesson I learned was to have a clear idea of what kind of first day story I was going to do. If it is going to be a snapshot, then there is no need to go out. Instead you need to figure out who has the most authentic data. 

The harder job is if your story is about those who are affected. In that case, you have to decide where you are going to travel. Most of us make this decision on the basis of where the impact is worst, but we also need to ask: Can we get back? Is there phone coverage? How safe are the roads? 

Information management is also key. With Twitter, the moment a big story breaks, you are suddenly on an information highway moving at warp speed. You need to be plugged in, but you also need to be skilled at distilling information based on authenticity. Verification becomes easier after the first 48 hours – at that point many aid and assistance groups will come in with professional media managers who know how to keep journalists informed. But it’s still tricky ground.

And the aftermath is not a static story; it’s fluid, dynamic and terribly complex. Some of us tend to look at disasters as a numbers report of fatalities, the affected and the costs of recovery. That is hardly the case. The aftermath evolves and has a life of its own. 

Take what is happening now in Nepal: the biggest concern is the incoming monsoon set to make landfall in early June. The mountain slopes that have been made ever more unstable can be a death trap if proper precautions are not taken.

Flying blind and winging it does not work. Take a step back, figure out what you want to report, and then how to report it. Make sure that the stories have more value than being simply macabre or ghastly. They need to inform people, people who are victims of the disaster and those who are in a position to help.

Self-care is also very important. We don’t realize it, but covering death and mayhem day in day out can have a really deep impact on our work and on ourselves. If we don’t realize this we tend to judge disasters by the numbers: the higher the death toll, the more important the story. That is why most global disaster reporting fails to address anything beyond the numbers. 

AR: And in covering that story, the tsunami, what did you find most difficult?

AP: One of the biggest challenges was how to keep telling this horrible story over and over again and still keep it humane. Three weeks after the tsunami I was in the eastern part of Sri Lanka where two young men were looking for their missing families, but kept discovering badly decomposed bodies of infants. The infants were the last to be discovered because the bodies would be stuck in the tiniest of crevices. These men would wrap the small bodies in cloth and bring them to the beach and bury them. This happened over and over again. The bodies smelled awful, the men smelled awful, I smelled awful. 

But after three weeks and 35,000 deaths, I had to tell this story. About the two young men, who had left their villages and gone to the Middle East to make money so that their families could live better lives, and now were searching for them, probably knowing all of them were dead. It became a story about the survivors, not necessarily about fortitude or strength, but more about helplessness and human vulnerability. But also about how ordinary men and women have to live through this pain.

The challenge was to keep the real story alive – what happens after the waves recede? Or the earth stops trembling? How do people live? How do people cope with this kind tragedy? My stories are not always about strength or fortitude, most of the time they are about how utterly helpless we become in situations like this but how we live through them.

AR: You have spent a good part of your career covering war and its aftermath – civil war in Sri Lanka, in Nepal. And in a lot of your reporting you have had to write about people who were missing, to speak with their family members. For you, how does that change the way you approach the assignment? 

AP: This is where experience counts. In Asia, death brings with it a whole set of social customs, traditions and practices that make it easier for the families to achieve closure. There are big funerals and prayers that allow for at least some kind of understanding that we need to let someone go. But when all those acts are absent, as is the case with the missing, people are in limbo. They live in a dark abyss.

When approaching families of the missing, I am very cautious. I rarely ask the first question – I make it known that I am a reporter – but I let them start the conversation and take it wherever they want. It is hard, really hard. But I don’t want to add to that person’s suffering by just prying for a great quote.

I remember one time in Nepal, in this area called Birathnagar in the east, I was reporting on families of people missing at war. There was this one old lady, who just kept staring at me, just looking at me. She did not speak for five minutes, maybe more. It made me really uncomfortable, nervous. What do I do? I did not have the faintest idea. But I waited. Then she said, “It is over ten years, and I am still looking for him.” It was like throwing a glass of cold water on my face, I was jolted. But I kept talking with her, kept my emotions in check, and later on, she opened up.

Another bit of advice when dealing with families of the missing: whenever possible try to approach them through someone they know. They will be easier to talk to. Also if you need family and personal details about the missing, try to get it from a secondary source who would have the same information. Because sometimes trying to get that type of information from immediate family members can be like poking them in the eye with a ballpoint pen.

AR: There are also environmental limitations for reporters in Nepal: continued aftershocks, a crippled transportation network and loss of power in many parts of the country. Do you have any advice for journalists on reporting in this kind of a climate? 

AP: You have to be your own savior and supplier. As a freelancer, this is a job requirement for me. Before you travel make sure you know the roads and the conditions. At least have some idea of the weather, which is pretty easy nowadays with mobile apps. But remember you need a decent connection, and in some areas that could be a problem. Travel light but make sure you have everything you need with you.

If possible, touch base with someone in the area before getting there. I have found the local Red Cross to be the best networked in disaster zones. On the ground sources will give you a fair idea of what you are about to drive or fly into. In some parts of the world it also helps to be aware of customs and traditions. Try to keep in touch with others reporting from the same area, so that you are in the loop about what is going on.

Make sure someone knows where you are. I started doing this while covering a really nasty civil war in my home country, Sri Lanka. Whenever I would leave a place, I would call a trusted friend to tell them where I was and where I was heading. This was a precaution given the scale of abductions, but it is something that I have continued. I also try to give details like mode of transport, flight details and who I am traveling with. This way when things go wrong, someone in a safer location has a general idea about your state of affairs.

AR: And with a lack of connectivity, how does the role of a journalist change? Does the media have a responsibility to connect people and help spread information beyond what is relevant to their own work? 

AP: To be very simplistic, a disaster creates two sets of people: those who have been affected and those who are in a position to provide assistance. Both these communities survive on timely, authentic information.

In the aftermath of a disaster, the media is in a position to frequently gain access to both of these groups, and so the reporting should give a clear picture of who is providing resources and where, and what is lacking.

This does happen in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but tends to taper away when the relief phase ends and the recovery and reconstruction phase begins. This is why disaster reporting is increasingly becoming a specialized niche. You need experienced and trained reporters who understand these dynamics, who understand a disaster is not the number of deaths or the amount of damage. The real disaster is how you rebuild thereafter, which can take years. A skillful reporter will know how to keep getting this information out while keeping the attention of a larger audience.

We still think disaster reporting can be done by anyone. I am not so sure. I think we need specialized expertise here, so that we don’t get the story wrong, and don’t use people who have suffered unimaginable horrors as props for our stories before we move on to the next disaster.



AR: As a researcher, you focus on the effects of witnessing trauma and have published several studies on the impact of trauma on journalists. Can you describe some of the challenges and risks for reporters in Nepal?

Patrice Keats: The first week or so is the most intense time for finding survivors and treating the wounded. In order to accurately capture what is happening and focus on people’s stories, journalists are immersed in the trauma. The good news is that journalists are generally hardy and resilient. Sometimes though, they may be unable to rest at night due to anxiety about the day’s events, aftershocks and their own safety, or thoughts about what they might see the next day. Some journalists might also experience nightmares, depression, frustration or difficulties in making sense of the disaster and responses by the government, aid organizations, or the people. Individuals who they cover may ask them for help, and journalists can find themselves overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness about their role and ability to help.

Consequently, the cumulative impact of witnessing the suffering and anxiety of the people affected tends to unravel when they get some down time or when they return home – they may experience unpredictable emotional outbursts; increased sensitivity to cues that remind them of the quake; feelings of despair and hopelessness; and disrupted relationships with others. They may feel depressed or isolated after returning home because they may notice a lack of empathy for those affected by the earthquake, or for their experiences covering it. 

AR: And what are some of the things they can do in terms self-care?

PK: Take care of their fundamental needs (sleep, eating, hygiene); understand their own limits as to how much they can tolerate and recognize their own signs of exhaustion and do something about it (rest, eat, meditate); cope through conversations with people who they trust (‘what’s shareable is bearable’); find moments of pleasure and optimism by noticing what is working well (little highlights of success).

AR: You are also an educator, with a strong personal connection to Nepal. You spend time every year training counselors and psychologists in Kathmandu - working to integrate western counseling practices within Nepali culture. Is there any advice you would share with a western journalist about working in Nepal? 

PK: I have been working to support Nepali counselors and teachers creating their own culturally aligned practices with some Western ideas that might add to their ways of working. And I have learned a lot about how Western methods don’t fit with Nepal culture.

I see it more as collaboration, rather than me as the expert. I have appreciated the very relational way of working my Nepali colleagues have taught me, their strength and resilience as a people under the very chaotic governmental restraints in their transition to democracy, and their ways of dealing with death and dying. Nepali people see death as a part of life’s cycle – it is not hidden away. 

If I were to give any advice to journalists it would be to work collaboratively, respect people’s way of being, and remain open and respectful of differences between their cultures. 

AR: You have also written about simulating trauma as a way to prepare for future, real life tragedies. It’s impossible to be ready for a disaster of this magnitude, but how does the prediction that an earthquake was coming in Nepal affect the level of trauma experienced by Nepali people?

PK: I don’t think you can ever really prepare for the reality you see on the ground, or really prepare for the unexpected. In safety or medical training, repeated practice can help to create automatic responses to danger and harm, but it still takes practice to become automatic when the reality confronts you. 

How Nepali people were affected, where they were at the time of the initial quake and their previous experiences of trauma will influence the amount of shock they experienced. Knowing the earthquake was coming for some time doesn’t change that. Governmental infrastructure in Nepal seems very complex and chaotic to me as an outsider, but I know that there was some preparation for the earthquake and some of it did materialize in the aftermath. The level of medical and other social services are challenging with such a large population and the general poverty of the country. 

AR: What are some of the barriers to healing in Nepal?

PK: I would say the general nature of the political climate in Nepal. People have very few reassurances that their needs will be met and reconstruction will take place. Many families have relatives who work outside of the country in order to earn a living, so there are many families where important support people live at a distance. 

There is a growing recognition about the psychological impact of trauma and there is help that trauma survivors can access though mental health services. However, there are many offering practices that are not helpful as a way of making money, so it is difficult for people to critically assess who is legitimate and who isn’t.

Please click here for tips and resources on covering disaster, interviewing victims and survivors, and working with reporters exposed to traumatic events.

And click here for more information on how you can help the recovery efforts on the ground in Nepal.