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1 Year Ago, Nepal Buckled Under A Quake That Killed 9,000 People


This week, Nepal marks a somber anniversary. A year ago, the country was hit with twin earthquakes. Nine thousand people were killed, and half a million others were left homeless. Danielle Preiss reports from Kathmandu the recovery is going slowly.

DANIELLE PREISS, BYLINE: Gyanbahadur Biwsokarma’s house in the village of Dunkharka has a facade littered with deep cracks and a crumbling roof. His wife squats on the mud for, boiling black tea while their 13-year-old daughter, Anita, feeds baby Arjun.

GYANBAHADUR BIWSOKARMA: (Through interpreter) After the earthquake, for about a month we stayed under plastic tarps in the road.

PREISS: Biswokarma doesn't earn much as a mason in the mountainous Kavre district, where 97 percent of houses were damaged. He got $150 from the government and help from an organization - he's not sure which - to build a tiny tin-and-tarp shack.

BIWSOKARMA: (Through interpreter) We don't have money to build a new house right away.

PREISS: A year after the earthquake, the family of five still sleeps in the shack but spends their days inside the wrecked house.

JEFF SHANNON: We still have tens of thousands of people who are sleeping under a tarp that was distributed almost a year ago - tin sheets.

PREISS: That's Jeff Shannon, director of programs at Mercy Corps. The Portland, Ore.-based charity provided emergency relief in Biwsokarma's village, like sanitation kits and blankets for the winter.

SHANNON: And these tin sheet houses or tarp houses - in winter they were ice boxes. There's no insulation.

PREISS: Outside the Kathmandu Valley, about 31,000 families have rebuilt. In the densely populated valley itself, exact numbers are hard to come by while the government still surveys. Meanwhile, little of the $4 billion pledged by the international community has turned up. And organizations like Mercy Corps say they've been waylaid by conditions in Nepal. Last fall, protests at the Indian border killed more than 50 people and blocked nearly all imports, including fuel, for five months.

SHANNON: At the very time when everybody was funded, staffed, ready to start rebuilding, everything shut down.

PREISS: The government has been criticized for its sluggish response. The National Reconstruction Authority was set up to manage rebuilding and distribute grants of 200,000 rupees, about $2,000, to people whose homes were destroyed. The money is supposed to be used for earthquake-safe construction. And so far, only a few hundred households have received any.

GOVINDA POKHREL: (Laughter) Unfortunately, it's the politics that is causing delay.

PREISS: Govinda Raj Pokhrel teaches engineering at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University and was head of the Reconstruction Authority for just two weeks before the agency dissolved last fall in a government changeover. It took months for the body to start up again under new leadership.

POKHREL: Even delays of week or days is causing huge social cost to the nation.

PREISS: The government also banned charities from helping with housing reconstruction until only a few weeks ago. The uncertainty has left organizations unsure how to help and victims frustrated. For some, the question of how to rebuild is secondary to where. In several weeks, the monsoon rains will likely trigger landslides in the highly mountainous country.

UNIDENTIFIED VILLAGERS: (Foreign language spoken).

PREISS: A massive landslide looms on the hill above 13 houses in the village of Chyamrangbesi, the next village over from Dunkharka. Uddhav Prasad Dahal points out the cracks in his house, where 8-foot boulders rained down during the earthquake and crushed his cow and buffalo shed.

PRASAD DAHAL: (Through interpreter) This is also cracked.

PREISS: Though government engineers told Dahal his land is unsafe, they've offered no alternatives.

DAHAL: (Through interpreter) People come, give us sympathy, and we feel good for a little while. But then tomorrow, when we think about not having a safe place to live, it hurts so much. Where are we going to go?

PREISS: Thousands of victims across the country are asking the same question. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Preiss in Kathmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Preiss