Al Wickheim with the locals who were both lending a hand and getting help.

Answering the call

Local emergency coordinator recalls relief effort in Nepal earthquake

Just days after the Nepal earthquake on April 25, local emergency co-ordinator Al Wickheim received a call from the Canadian Red Cross: they needed him to pack up and make his way down to Ottawa for a debriefing before taking a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Wickheim, a former BC Ambulance paramedic and owner of Prodaptive Medical Innovations, spent 28 days in Nepal as a technician assisting the earthquake-stricken nation.

The earthquake left more than 9,000 dead and another 20,000 injured.

“We got to the ground, packed down, then oriented ourselves toward the city,” Wickheim said.

“The first order of business was to get a facility for the arrival of our equipment, which was coming in the next day. We had seven semi-tractors’ worth of stuff.”

He said airport authorities limited  only two Red Cross trucks per nation (there were many other nations who responded) – this was done as a prevention to organized crime, which had moved in as soon as the supplies started to arrive.

“We eventually found a warehouse and spent the next three days unloading and getting things organized, then on the third day, our other crew split and headed off to the small village of Dhunche,” he said, adding part of his team went up there to support a clinic that had collapsed during the earthquake.

“We saw as many people in our small clinic than the bigger clinics were seeing, even after three days, the worst of the critical had either died or been evacuated away by Chinese responders.”

On the way to set up the main camp, Wickheim said the level of destruction was everywhere.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a building that didn’t have structural damage. There was also a mix of either tilted, or still-collapsing buildings, or areas that were reduced to just a pile of rubble,” he said.

Once at the camp location, Wickheim became the proverbial spearhead of setting up all the facilities, such as an inflatable pole, about a dozen tents, water and sanitation facilities, showers, washrooms, electric generators and even camp security.

“Each day you get up ahead of everybody else to make sure everything is set, generator is full of fuel, water bladder hasn’t leaked out, and just troubleshoot throughout the day,” Wickheim said.

Tremors continued throughout days and nights, even weeks after the big earthquake hit.

Wickheim said the level of destruction was much more severe in the mountain areas, where his camp was located, and where majority of the nation’s population lives.

Once in the city though, Wickheim tells of an-almost eerie calm, particularly around areas where buildings were just mere ruins.

“There were people where there were houses, just sitting there, not any effort being made to access into the buildings,” he said, adding that the actual rescue of victims all happened within a day or two – at this point, there wasn’t much left to rescue.

Wickheim said lots of fire departments from all over the world showed up with their equipment and rescue teams all ready to dismantle all the broken buildings, but the buildings were dismantled already.

“There’s a feeling of helplessness for sure, but by the same token, these are people who live with very little and they’re pretty adept, because they can’t just go to home hardware and get what they need, they take care of themselves,” he said.

One of the prevailing issues in Nepal at this point are sanitation issues, Wickheim noted, particularly around city centres.

“There’s a couple of rivers that go through the city, they’re mostly dried up, but they’re inundated with tents, even the sidewalks are filled with tents,” he said.

“Imagine, someone decides that’s the pole where you go to do your toilet act, and then everybody decides that as well.”

But as horrible as all that sounds, Wickheim said he wishes he was able to go back to Nepal to help, given that his term there is now over.

“They’re totally overwhelmed with 10 times as much of everything than they’d seen before,” he said, adding since the earthquake happened back in April, the aftermath continues to this day.

“Now they have all the monsoons happening, which is going to add to all the mudslides,” he said.

“They’ll have continuous shakes for the next year and terracing in many places is gone, so they have to start again by building up the soil.”