Like many people around the world, Tarendra Lakhankar, an environmental engineer and assistant professor of research at City College, was horrified by the news of a devastating earthquake in Nepal in April that killed more than 8,800 people, leveling homes and irreplaceable antiquities in the capital of Katmandu and the mountain villages to its north.
Unlike most people, Lakhankar had research ties in the area that enabled him to marshal the first relief party to reach the quake’s most isolated victims.
Coordinating efforts by phone and email from his City College office, Lakhankar helped raise more than $10,000, contacted fellow researchers and family members in India and recruited volunteers who managed to truck blankets, food, batteries and tents to thousands of homeless villagers within six days of the April 25 quake.
Many villagers would be sustained for weeks by those supplies before international relief agencies could get through.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Frank D. Sanchez says there were about 150 students from Nepal enrolled at CUNY, and about 1,000 more of Nepali heritage. While none of the 150 were known to have lost family members, many of their families lost their homes, and some of the students were concerned about being able to continue their studies.
Sanchez says that when the worst happens and a natural disaster strikes — at home or abroad — CUNY has a protocol that enables it to help in the most effective, coordinated way. The University strives to make sure that students, faculty and staff who have connections to the affected area are supported. It also works to ensure that the aid that is sent to help those there, be they connected to CUNY or not, actually gets to those it is intended to help.
According to the protocol, the Chancellor will ask each college president to identify a liaison to represent the college on a Disaster Relief Coordinating Committee and help those on each campus to communicate with one another. A website is also created —and updated — to provide additional information.
Sanchez added that decisions also need to be made about whether it’s better to collect funds or clothing, food and other necessities. “Generally, we find that the best way to use our time and energy is to raise money for a nonprofit working on the ground,” Sanchez said. Usually, the University sets up a central account where colleges can send collected funds.
“Our office has been a part of several natural disasters,” Sanchez said. “The earthquakes in Japan and Turkey, the tsunami in the Philippines and certainly Hurricane Sandy…with Hurricane Sandy that was so local. We lost four students. We worked and raised money with the Robin Hood foundation, which gave CUNY $350,000 in assistance for students.”
“With Nepal what we learned is because of the earthquake there were a lot of limitations,” said Sanchez. “We were encouraged not to send food and clothing to the airport. They need the airport for critical supplies to bring back the infrastructure and sending goods and clothing would bog down the use of the airstrips.” He added that the University student community responded quickly to aid Nepal, collecting more than $20,000 within a couple of weeks.
The University also mobilizes to provide counseling for members of its community who may be worried about friends and relatives, or, in the case of Superstorm Sandy, themselves and their immediate families, as well.
Cultural sensitivity is considered in this process. In the case of Nepal, for example, counselors needed to be aware that for those of the Hindu religion, the grieving process “can be very, very long.” For counseling and other support in these situations, CUNY often uses the services offered by the CUNY Work/Life program, as well as its own counselors, its human resources officers and professors who might have expertise in the country in question.
After the earthquake in Nepal, the University consulted with Lehman biochemistry professor Manfred Philipp, the president of the CUNY Academy of the Humanities and Science who had had a Fulbright in Nepal. At Baruch, professor David Chang, director of the counseling center, conducted a presentation to help with grieving and other issues.
A number of campuses have obtained emergency grants — or are attempting to —from the Petrie Foundation and others, to help students who are struggling. Sanchez urged those students to contact the University’s International Student and Scholar Services office to find out about eligibility for reduced course loads, off-campus employment and other services.
Sanchez also participated in a White House teleconference on Nepal, which included representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon and the United States Agency for International Development.
In Nepal, Lakhankar heads a 15-member research group that has been working with farmers in remote mountain villages since 2012, developing agriculture technologies aimed at anticipating and adapting to climate change. Two of those villages, Dhading and Ghorka, were near the epicenter of the April 25 quake.
The team, which includes researchers from Colorado State University and Small Earth Nepal, a nongovernmental agency, is based at the Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center at City College, a research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration established in 2001, and known by the acronym NOAA-CREST.
Building weather stations and developing irrigation techniques for farming in arid conditions, Lakhankar had come to know many of the local farmers and their families during his four visits to the area, often visiting them in their mud-brick houses on the mountain slopes around their fields.
When he heard news of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and saw the first images of devastation in Katmandu, Lakhankar pictured those mud-brick structures in his mind.
“I suspected that the damage in my villages would be worse than in Katmandu,” Lakhankar said recently. “And I was correct.”
Though the death toll in the villages was relatively low — the earthquake struck in the daytime, when most people were working in their fields — most of the people in Lakhankar’s villages, as he thinks of them, had no shelter.
He immediately set up a fundraising website, contacted family and friends in India who would purchase food, water and medical supplies; and kept in close contact with Panthi Jeeban, a researcher for Small Earth Nepal who coordinated efforts on the ground. Panthi rented a truck, and met volunteers from Nepal at the India-Nepal border crossing for the first of many six-hour drives into the hard-hit region.
The team also included Dr. Madan Lall Shrestha, another researcher for Small Earth Nepal, and Dr. Mohan Prasad Sharma, a professor at the Agriculture and Forestry University in Rampur, Nepal.
Three years ago, Lakhankar developed an automatic weather station to monitor climate change in three districts of Nepal: Dhading, Syangja and Kapilvastu. Lakhankar and his team also created demonstration farms in those villages.
“The village where we set up the weather station and climate adaptation demonstration farm was destroyed. “It could take six months before it is running again, he said. “But right now the priority is on helping the villagers.”