Haiti memorial emily troutman

Off-Duty When the Nepal Earthquake Hit: Reflections on Preparedness, Living Life & Loss

When the earthquake in Nepal struck five days ago, I was at a weekend bachelorette party for one of my oldest friends. Phone off, laptop down, focused on the Bride. For me, that’s pretty unusual. As the earth began to shake, more than 12,000 miles away, I was halfway through some high school anecdotes and a mimosa. Basically, a reporter’s worst nightmare.

Disasters are my bread and butter. And in journalism, like disaster response, there is a focus on being there first. I found out about the earthquake halfway through the party and even though it was difficult, I decided to tread lightly. After all, if I regretted being there at the party, wouldn’t that also mean I regretted my friends, my blessings? The life I’d carved out for myself?

Slowing down, it turned out, had a lot of value. At the moment when this particular disaster hit, I realized, everyone on earth was just living their life. The experts, the reporters, the people of Nepal. They were hugging their kids, making dinner, sweeping the floor. And that, alone, is part of what makes the losses hard to bear. Did people know Nepal was on a faultline? Of course.

But this is what life is. There are hurricanes and earthquakes and riots and brides and breakfasts and the car won’t start and the baby cries and the band does maybe one encore and that’s it. That’s what it’s like. Life on earth is so… undependable.

He Always Wears His Boots

Over the past year, I have reported from Turkey, Haiti, Vanuatu and in a few days, I hope to be in Nepal. I often tell stories about the world’s most vulnerable people and my work inspires me to consider what we can control and what we can’t. In life it seems like each moment should be equal, but they’re not. Some moments stack onto the old ones, like dishes. Other moments smash and scream; they renovate our lives without consent.

A few days after the quake hit in 2010, I went to Haiti. Many of the casualties were people that I knew because I spent the month before the earthquake working with the UN there. Six months later, I finally had the nerve to ask a devastated friend what it was like. Not the quake itself, the surviving. A hundred and two UN employees died and nearly all the people in the building where he worked.

He told me, “I always wear these boots.”

When the quake hit, he had to run for his life, he said. He couldn’t understand how anyone in Haiti could ever wear sandals again. Never mind the beaches or warm weather.

“I keep my bag packed and by the door,” he added.

You Have to Stop Watching the Baby Sleep

Part of me was jealous of my friend. He was truly prepared. And another part of me felt sorry for him. Living in fear can be dangerous; it blinds you from good sense. It keeps you from living the life you’re trying to protect. Moms know, at some point, you have to stop watching the baby sleep.

Ultimately, in Haiti, I was too disorganized to worry all the time. I knew I’d just… forget. And I did. I slept outside. Then inside. I wore my shoes and clothes to bed. Then I wore my shoes and pajamas to bed. I wore pajamas to bed but only decent ones. Eventually, I forgot everything and crashed naked in bed in the unbearable heat. I was beyond caring, I guess. Or was I? Even now, when my dog jumps on the bed, I jump too.

At the bachelorette party last weekend, I managed to buy a book in town. It’s titled The Pessimist’s Guide to History and across the top, an orange banner reads FRESHLY UPDATED WITH THE LATEST DISASTERS. Oh good, I thought. Something light to read on the plane.

I guess it could seem like I’m obsessed with bad news. But in another way, the work feels optimistic. I spend a lot of time feeling really lucky, wondering, How lucky am I?

Consider These Disasters of the Past

There have been thousands of bad earthquakes, and many of them are covered in The Pessimist’s Guide. But the worst, by numbers, was an earthquake in China in 1556 that killed 830,000 people. Victims were living in a cave-like city carved out of soft clay hills. When the quake struck, the whole thing went down.

In 1923, in Japan, an earthquake killed thousands near Tokyo. The earthquake was bad enough, but then it caused landslides, a tsunami, a tornado, a fire, and hurricane-strength winds. When the residents ran into the ocean to escape the fire, the water was suddenly engulfed in flames from the explosion of a nearby oil refinery. One hundred and forty thousand people died.

Syria was destroyed by earthquake in 19 BC, very sad. Naples was destroyed by earthquake in 1456, also very sad. Naples again in 1626. Italy, in general, is quite unstable. From a purely practical perspective, the humans living in Italy should have packed up 3,000 years ago and never looked back. Then there was an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. That one sticks out because the fire that followed burned 200 insanely rare paintings by the masters.

Hard to Know What to Prepare For

Haiti… Haiti was awful. In the next edition of The Pessimist’s Guide, I’m sure it will make the list. But even so, on the scale of a thousand years, or three thousand, the road we’re on, with all its bumps and potholes, looks painfully smooth. Our century is a tiny blip between dinosaurs and aliens or whatever the next big thing turns out to be. Should we be preparing for that, too, I wonder?

I wonder if the girls at the bachelorette party remember Sarah, a childhood friend. In 1988, her parents believed the world would come to an end. They sold everything and we said our good-byes. I remember thinking it was cruel of her parents. When the world didn’t end, we played together again, but never mentioned it.

We forget how other people make meaning. We forget how people forget. There’s a conflict, which we cannot change, between life as we plan it and life as it happens. And there is always a gap. Looking at loss is hard. Expecting pain, planning for it, is even harder.


With personal notes on death tolls.

The Pessimist’s Guide to History, with personal notes on death tolls.


I am planning to be in Nepal from May 3 to May 17. Please message me if you would like to connect.