Helping people right where they are

On 12 January 2010 at 4.53pm, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in a very built-up area with a population of 3.5 million. The epicentre was located about 25 km from Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. Several dozen strong aftershocks occurred in the following hours. The tremor killed more than 230,000 and injured over 300,000.

An unprecedented disaster

Port-au-Prince under the rubble

The resulting disaster was colossal. The city was highly populated and the urban landscape difficult to navigate. Houses were built “one on top of the other”. Numerous buildings were destroyed, including 500 hospitals, 300 schools, the National Palace and the cathedral in Port-au-Prince. The first floor of the French Embassy, located in a mansion in Port-au-Prince’s old town, literally collapsed. The Haitian government was disorganized by the disaster and declared a one-month state of emergency for the entire country.

Over two million people found themselves homeless and without water or food supplies after the quake. The first responders who arrived on scene expressed a unanimous feeling of powerlessness when they witnessed the scale of the disaster. French Red Cross delegates based in Port-au-Prince described total chaos in the capital. “Port-au-Prince is now a pile of rubble, covered by a huge cloud of dust that makes the city invisible from the sky.”

An unprecedented disaster

France quick to respond

The Crisis Centre coordinated the relief efforts. From 13 January, more than 450 firefighters, soldiers and emergency doctors began arriving from Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Mainland. They brought equipment and set up a field hospital staffed with 70 medical personnel while two ships with medical staff on board were called in for additional support. By chance, the airport runway remained usable and it was the only access for aid workers, since the harbour was unusable. The international community, stunned by the tragedy, worked to mobilize financial, material and logistical resources.

For weeks, the French staff fought alongside the Haitian population and the relief workers from all over the world in order to take care of the injured and pull survivors from the rubble, before the reconstruction teams took over.

Personnal account

Kathmandu, another earthquake, another drama

On Friday, 24 April 2015, when Julien Manuel stepped onto the tarmac of the small airport in Kathmandu, he had no idea of the intense experience that lied ahead. Nepal was not uncharted territory for him. This was the third time he had come to hike the Himalayas, and this time he was there to fulfil his dream of trekking through Mustang.

Julien Manuel knew Nepal well. He had gone through a small local agency run by a Frenchman and well-known in Himalayan trekking circles to organize his trek. It was April, the perfect season for seeing Mustang, a former independent kingdom considered one of the most beautiful regions in the world and long closed to foreigners.

On the morning of Saturday, 25 April, Manuel had already completed the necessary formalities to get his trekking permit, handed over his passport and paid the agency. “I decided to enjoy the morning in Kathmandu to see one of the city’s temples again,” he remembers. He hesitated between Patan Durbar Square, or Boudhanath Stupa Sanctuary. After a few delays, he found himself at Boudhanath at 11.44am when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck. The epicentre was 80 km from the Nepalese capital, but the city was built on a dried-up lake and the geological structure was conducive to the propagation and amplification of the seismic waves.

Although the region is located in a subduction zone and experiences frequent earthquakes, this was the strongest on record since 1934. Buildings are not built to seismic standards and are frequently made of materials of low durability. The toll was heavy: across Nepal, estimates placed the number of deaths at 7,000, with another 14,000 injured.

Property damage was also considerable. According to the UN, more than 160,000 houses were destroyed and 140,000 partially damaged, 24,000 classrooms were rendered unusable, the airport was closed and invaluable monuments such as the Dharahara (Bhimsen) Tower and Durbar Square temples were wiped off the map. Local emergency services were completely overwhelmed. Strong aftershocks ranging from 6.3 to 7.3 in magnitude followed. In all, there would be some fifty aftershocks that occurred until 12 May. In Paris, France immediately offered its help to the Nepalese authorities.

The facilities at the small French Embassy in Kathmandu were very damaged: the compound had collapsed and the walls of the chancellery office were cracked. On Sunday morning, Manuel and other rescued French nationals were brought to the French school in Kathmandu. Because numerous aftershocks were still occurring and the exact condition of the building was unknown, they slept outside in large tents.

Around the canvas shelter, activities carried on. “Student members of a brass brand association held improvised concerts every night,” says Manuel. “We had been given water and military rations that were quite decent – I even took photos of them.

With the school’s Wi-Fi system, a makeshift hotspot was created so people could go online, get news and contact family, and post information on social media. Manuel was able to recover his passport and money thanks to the bravery and honesty of the trekking agency employees. “They retrieved everything from the office safe, even though it could have collapsed at any moment.

With the support of the CDCS, the five embassy staff members, who were supported by staff brought in from New Delhi as well as nearly 150 civil protection agents and humanitarian workers, did everything they could to identify, locate and assist the approximately 3,000 French nationals in Nepal. In addition to those in the capital, hundreds of French mountaineers and trekkers were blocked on the slopes of the Himalayas and needed to be found and rescued.

The teams made exhaustive efforts to work with families, local authorities, tourism professionals and guides in cooperation with the hotline at the Ministry. It handled more than 18,700 calls. The next goal was to bring everyone back to France. Air traffic congestion in Nepal was a major issue that considerably hampered relief efforts. However, Paris was able to dispatch three planes loaded with medical equipment and humanitarian aid. On Thursday, 30 April, Manuel and 200 of his fellow countrymen were repatriated on board one of them, “a brand new Airbus A350”. Other stranded travellers were able to board commercial flights or be evacuated through their travel agencies.