The day the earth shook

By Audette Exel, Founder and Chair, Adara Group

It was just another lazy Saturday afternoon, almost a year ago today.

In Kathmandu, our Country Manager, Pralhad Dhakal, had popped into the office to catch up on a few overdue emails. A couple of other staff were there, reading the papers, drinking Nepali tea, and enjoying the quiet. In Sydney, our CEO, Susan Biggs, was getting ready for dinner. In Seattle, our Clinical Practice Director, Debbie Lester, had finally got her three kids into bed. In Montana, Kimber Haddix Mackay, our Research Director, was working late on a key piece of research. And in Uganda, Dan Kabugo, our Programmes Manager, was fast asleep after another big week overseeing our medical work with a rural Ugandan hospital.

And then the ground began to shake and roar. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake, shallow and close to Kathmandu, unleashed itself.

In an instant, that lazy Saturday became a catastrophe of epic proportions.

In 90 terrifying seconds Nepal was changed forever as close to 9000 people lost their lives, tens of thousands suffered traumatic injury, and more than 3.5 million people were left homeless. More than 8,000 schools, hundreds of hospital and thousands of medical clinics were destroyed. Landslides wiped out entire villages. World heritage sites – temples, monuments, shrines and other buildings of incalculable religious and national significance – disappeared in clouds of dust and rubble.

“We just held on to each other, trying to stay upright, as everything around us began to shake,” said Pralhad. “Then, when we could, we ran outside. And I began dialling our kids, dialling our staff. I needed to dial everyone so fast that I wanted to use my right hand, my left hand, my right foot, and my left foot. I had to try to find everyone.”

In that moment, Pralhad went from gentle leader of our Nepal-based Adara operations to commander in charge of countless lives.

I was stretched out in Balmain with a coffee and the Saturday papers when my Twitter feed began to explode with the story. ” Big earthquake. Very bad. Trying to find all staff and kids” came Pralhad’s first skype message. And then: ” Most of staff found” Then “Kids OK” and at last ” Think everyone is safe”. The horrifying realisation was dawning on me…this was really, really big and really, really bad.

Up until that moment, I was comfortable in the knowledge that we had seen most of what international development work had to throw at us. We had been working in the sector since 1998. We had won numerous awards for our work across maternal infant child healthcare, kids at risk and remote health and education service delivery. We knew that our work was well respected. Through both failures and successes, Adara had built a team of skilled and passionate development experts, together with some top notch corporate advisors, to help bridge worlds and change the lives of tens of thousands of people in remote places. We had managed to deliver quality services in Uganda – through political unrest and the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and we had stared down Maoist rebels and child traffickers in Nepal, managing to continue working through a decade of civil conflict. We had generated revenue from the often ruthless world of investment banking, even in times of financial crisis. And we had worked in geographic and specialist areas that others considered too difficult.

But, as it turned out, nothing, but nothing, had prepared us for the reality of a catastrophe of this size, especially in a country as remote, diverse and politically complex as Nepal. And nothing had shown me what real leadership – and the power of a truly great team – meant until the earth convulsed and collapsed inside the Himalayan kingdom.

What to do? How to help? What are the protocols? Is there a disaster plan? How do we get supplies in? Where are our teams? How much money will they need? Where we will get it from? What do we prioritise first? What on earth is UNOCHR and what the hell is a “cluster?” Where is that list of staff phone numbers?

Suddenly, we were all beginners again, and a great deal was at stake. And I was no longer a leader…now I was just a learner.

Within an hour, Pralhad had tracked down our entire Nepalese staff: not one of whom had a safe home left. All the children in our care had somehow miraculously survived. Our partner organisations had made it too, shaken but alive. Some staff, shocked beyond measure but driven by determination to help others, had begun to trickle in. The teenagers and children in our care were moved to their new home and the Adara command centre: the lawn outside our damaged offices.

Over the next days, weeks and months, Pralhad led our operations, cajoling, caring for, and sometimes chiding those who were shaking. ” Is your family safe? Are you safe? So you lost your home? OK: we all lost our homes. But we are safe. So now, we must save others.” Medical camps had to be organised. Transport and teams found. Tin for roofing to be found and transported. Medicine gathered. Coordination with other actors organised through the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Response, and their incredible needs-based cluster system. There was no time to waste.

In Sydney the Adara team got going in the office. Cabrie and Maddy were the first in. The rest followed. Sunday was suddenly A Day to Get Organised. To plan communications. To sort out fund raising. To learn about emergency response.

In Seattle, Debbie began to lead work on medical and public health issues. In Montana, Kimber began work on best practice earthquake response and key re-building issues. And in Uganda, in Bermuda, and in all the far flung places where Adara has volunteers and supporters across the globe, Adarians sent messages of love and support to their colleagues and the people of Nepal, and began to raise desperately needed funds.

By the time I made it to Kathmandu a few days later, I realised that I was seeing some of the most extraordinary scenes – and extraordinary leadership – I had ever had the privilege of witnessing.

In the Nepalese capital, Pralhad was organising our team in helping set up emergency medical camps, providing shelter, support and nutrition to thousands, and support to many displaced children who were now more susceptible than ever to child traffickers.

I watched in awe as Pralhad urged our exhausted team forward, encouraging them to perform better than they had ever imagined possible. I watched Menuka, our nurse, leave her family on a sidewalk tent every morning so that she could run mobile medical clinics from dawn to dusk. I saw acts of quiet greatness, leadership and unity from the entire Adara global family, all of whom helped pave the way for the best possible recovery and rebuilding operation Adara could mount.

Twelve months later, and we have new offices in Kathmandu. Every one of our staff has a safe home again. Since that terrible day we have delivered more than 88,000 kgs of rice, and provided shelter, medical assistance, child protection and nutrition to more than 13,000 people. We have begun the next stage of our work: rebuilding in a village where nearly 100 people lost their lives and every structure destroyed.

And we now know what UNOCHR stands for.

There is a decade of work ahead as the extraordinary and resilient Nepali people continue to try and rebuild their lives. Adara will have the privilege of standing with them all the way.


Audette Exel AO is the Founder and Chair of the Adara Group.

In 1995, Audette was elected a Global Leader for Tomorrow by The World Economic Forum. She was the recipient of the Economic Justice and Community Impact Award from the Young Presidents Organisation in 2010. In 2012, Audette was the winner of the 2012 NSW Telstra Business Woman of the Year Award. She is also one of the 2012 Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in Australia. In 2013, Audette was awarded an honorary Order of Australia for service to humanity and was recognised in 2014 by Forbes as a “Hero of Philanthropy”. In 2015, Audette was inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame. She recently was named the 2016 Leading Philanthropist by Philanthropy Australia.

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