The people of Nepal have been gripped with fear as the aftershocks of a massive 7.8 earthquake have continued to shake the ground beneath them. Rumors swarm as to when the next “BIG ONE” will hit while each ensuing tremor serves as a constant reminder of the buildings they saw crumble to the ground, injuring and killing thousands of their neighbors, friends and loved ones. Not trusting the structure over their heads, families relocated to tents in clear spaces that would give some assurance of safety and rest for another day.
Just as some had begun to put their fears behind them, another large earthquake (7.3) shook those feelings right back to the surface. I had arrived in Nepal with EMI’s first Disaster Response (DR) team a few days before this earthquake and I can honestly say that the shaking was unlike anything I had ever experienced. After it was over, I went outside to assess the situation around me. Birds were circling overhead and a cloud of dust hung in the air almost symbolic of the spirit of fear hovering over the people. By the time I reached the streets, they were flooded with people. Many were crying in disbelief that it was happening all over again as they held tightly to loved ones or frantically searched for evidence that their friends and family were safe.
The moment was surreal, but helped me empathize with the experience of the people I had come to serve.
Our EMI team had come to connect with partner ministries to provide technical assistance primarily through structural assessments of damaged buildings. The evaluations gave many the assurance needed to move on, some to return to their homes and others, plans for rebuilding.
Earthquakes of this magnitude typically leave questions as to why some buildings are completely destroyed while similar structures seemed to be left undamaged. Some of this can be explained by physical characteristics of the structures that are easy to identify by a trained eye, such as: simple structural techniques, the age of the structure, or slight differences in materials and/or workmanship. There are also significant geological reasons why some areas have more intense shaking than others, which can be much harder to identify precisely without significant shake monitoring and geological studies. Still there can even be anomalies outside of those causes that are even more difficult to explain.
Our team visited areas near the epicenters of the initial 7.8 magnitude earthquake and the 7.3 magnitude earthquake as well as many areas around Kathmandu valley and saw numerous things that were hard to explain. For example, in Kathmandu, we anticipated that damages would be much greater than they were in many areas. That is not to say there wasn’t considerable damage in some areas, but it wasn’t as widespread as we expected. Kathmandu valley is a former lake bed, meaning the soils are expected to not be resistant to shaking. However, not far from some of the historic sites of Kathmandu which received heavy damage and extensive media coverage were similar old multiple story buildings with large ground floor openings (soft stories with few rigid support walls) that were not built to any sort of earthquake resistant code but were still relatively undamaged.
Perhaps even more surprising was what we saw in Ghorka, only 12 miles from the epicenter of the initial earthquake. The damage in this area was relatively insignificant compared to buildings that were of similar construction hundreds of miles away! Again, that is not to say there was no damage in this area, because there certainly was, but it was much less than other areas.
What made this difficult for our team was repeatedly getting the question, “Is this structure safe?” An honest answer to most was a resounding, “NO!” Most of them were not safe structures to be located in an earthquake prone area to begin with, but somehow they survived unscathed. We could tell them that there was no immediate danger of it falling, but given another earthquake with greater shaking, it could easily fall just like those we had seen in other areas. We could give some recommendations for strengthening the structure against future earthquakes, which could give them some level of peace but wouldn’t guarantee that it would survive another shake due to the many other structural weaknesses. At the same time, we couldn’t recommend that they do massive upgrades or rebuilds because honestly there is not enough money available through the relief efforts or otherwise for them to replace every non-earthquake resistant structure.
Reconciling the collision of God’s sovereignty and grace can often be difficult for the limited capacity of our understanding. It can be exceptionally challenging in the context of natural disasters which are largely indiscriminate in who they affect.
It is much easier to resolve such a thing in our minds when we can see God’s grace clearly surrounding only those who put their faith in Him, much like the Israelites who were passed over because they had the blood of the lamb over their doorposts. While I am certain God’s grace is not absent in disasters, being a Christ follower doesn’t seem to delineate a clear line of safety. Further, it seems almost arrogant and insensitive to claim the grace of God for the unaffected, when others who were greatly affected are no less valuable as human beings. Some are even committed followers of Christ.
…BUT God’s grace is certainly at work, even in a disaster or in suffering, and should be given due credit despite our understanding. After all, His grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
As a testimony to God’s grace and sovereignty in concerted work through this disaster, the initial earthquake took place at mid-day on a Saturday. This could not have happened at a better time in terms of preventing loss of life. Saturday is the one day of the week in Nepal that kids do not go to school and in the middle of the day, most people are out of their homes. I can tell you from the many schools that our team evaluated that the loss of life would have been tremendously greater if schools would have been in session when the earthquake occurred. This doesn’t lessen the value of the lives that were lost, but it should increase our faith in the all sufficient grace of God.
Praise God that these children’s lives were spared!
We know that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been calledaccording to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
My prayer for the people of Nepal is that they will come to know peace through the love and hope of Christ and that they will put their trust in the One who saves.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:1-3, 10)