On the morning of Saturday April 26, Bangor woman Nicola Hinds woke up in her home in Bangor and enjoyed breakfast in bed, served by her GP husband Shel.
It was a morning that began like any other - until the 57-year-old former barrister turned on her TV and looked on in horror at scenes in Nepal that were shocking the rest of the world as they also awoke to a new day.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake had stuck the country’s capital Kathmandu, wreaking devastation and causing the deaths of, to date, more than 6,000 people.
By lunch time that afternoon, mother-of-three Nicola was packing her case, and was booked on a flight due to leave for the city the following morning.
As a response team member for an international disaster relief charity called ShelterBox, which brings help and aid to countries hit by natural and man made disasters, she knew that a recent visit she had been on with the organisation to Kathmandu meant she had some knowledge of the area, and she was keen to help in any way she could.
“Since ShelterBox started in 2000, they have responded to more than 250 disasters in 90 countries,” says Nicola, who originally trained as a nurse in Belfast City Hospital and then a midwife in the Royal Maternity, and worked in Switzerland and London before having her children, Rebecca, 31, Holly, 28, and James, 25.
Nicola herself was first made aware of the charity 15 years ago, but due to family commitments she wasn’t able to join them; however last April she completed her training with them and has been on various relief aid missions.
But she admits that she was “apprehensive” about the prospect of heading to Nepal this time, because of the sheer scale of the devastation caused by this tragic natural disaster.
“I have never experienced the aftermath of such a major disaster, and read everything I could about earthquake procedures,” says Nicola, who is still in Kathmandu.
She revealed that even getting there had its problems; the airport has just one runway which was closed with every aftershock.
“After flying to Singapore, we had a four hour delay, then almost three hours circling the airport as queues of flights waited to land. But at least the airport is open, and main bridges are intact around the city.”
Upon arriving in Kathmandu, Nicola was instantly struck by the eerie silence of the city.
“Normally bustling and chaotic, it was now silent and shuttered,” she recalls.
“From the air we had seen makeshift tents throughout the valley. In the city, roundabouts, streets, parks were full of temporary shelters. Everyone was terrified to go inside in case it happened again. Even at our hotel, guests were sleeping outside, on sun loungers, on lawns. Helpful staff were putting mattresses on floors to try to assist incoming medics and help staff to have somewhere to sleep. We are looking at 10 in two twin rooms!”
Just 30 minutes after arriving in Kathmandu, Nicola and the ShelterBox team experienced a terrifying aftershock. She described it as being akin to “a huge explosion”.
She says: “The ground was shaking and everyone rushed out screaming. Since then there have been quite a few more. Everywhere we go, we have to look carefully at buildings before we dare go in for meetings, as many are structurally unsafe. We plan our escape routes, and sleep in our clothes with a grab bag of essentials, head torches, food, and passports nearby. The tension amongst the Nepali people is palpable, if a door bangs everyone jumps in alarm. Power cuts have been frequent too, and water shortages are problematic.
“We have always had great support from Rotary and Rotaractors in Nepal, and once more they are at our side, helping with translating and logistics. They made us aware immediately that hospitals were under huge stress.”
As Nicola explains, Shelterbox excels in getting aid to the most remote areas, so they are involved in getting information about where they can best be used. But it can be frustrating work, she says, talking to aid agencies and dealing with everything from aerial mapping to water and hygiene providers.
“Our great team in Cornwall are dealing with the logistics of flying the aid in; it is up to us then to arrange everything onward,” she says.
“No one wants to duplicate, so the international federation of Red Cross are coordinating all the shelter agencies. It is hugely complicated by the distances and the unknown state of roads and mountainous terrain.” Nicola said that the team were planning on heading out to rural areas around Kathmandu where the need was greatest, and access communities there. This was something, she acknowledged sadly, that was going to be challenging, and upsetting. “We know that we are going to see more distressing things,” she said. “Looking after each other is a huge part of our ethos. Our Nepali friends are heartbroken and saddened to see so many of their historic buildings destroyed, and their country devastated, but collectively are striving to help each other.”