Engineers in short supply as home owners want safety assuranceLalita Thapa had been spending nights in a makeshift tent since the Great Quake that reduced thousands of buildings to rubble on April 25.
The four-storey house that her family built selling their ancestral property in Pokhara had withstood the quake when many other buildings in Ekantakuna area were pancaked.
But the house had suffered several minor cracks in the walls, passage and columns. The cracks and scores of aftershocks compelled the anxious Thapa family to move out to an open space for shelter.
As the days passed, the Thapas realised that theirs was not the only house to sustain such fractures. She found that many families who stayed out in the open for some days after the main shock had returned to their houses after consulting with engineers.
Thapa decided to consult professional engineers one week after the quake but she could not find one. She called everywhere and even enlisted her name in the Lalitpur Municipality office for engineers, to no avail.
Thapa’s ordeal ended on Sunday after Scott Douglas, an American structural engineer, thoroughly examined the cracks of her house before deeming it habitable. Upon getting answers to all their queries, the Thapa family was convinced that the house was safe to live in.
An increasing number of families like Thapa are returning to their houses after consultation with an engineer. Many others continue to live outside—in tents, vehicles and even under the open sky—due to the cracks in their houses, coupled with fears of another major quake.
Like most other house owners, Thapa was keen to get answers to question such as whether her house is safe to live, if there is something she could do to make it ductile and if the hairlines and cosmetic cracks in the walls and columns are something to worry about. “We feel relieved now. We will now live at home,” said Thapa.
“Her house has some minor cracks but no structural strength loss. The ground may have been settled up a couple of millimetre for some reasons to cause the cosmetic damage and hairlines. It’s usually serious when the wall sustains big diagonal cracks. When the wall loses its strength, the column has to take all the load and then it collapses in most cases,” said Douglas, who worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Thapa was suggested to make minor repairs in the damaged parts of the house.
Global Fairness Initiative (GFI), a non- profit organisation working on post-disaster damage assessment in collaboration with Nepal Engineers’ Association, said most of the 500 buildings examined in Kathmandu Valley over the weekend were found safe to live in. The organisation has employed 16 structural engineers from the United States and several local engineers for the task.
“We thoroughly examine the damage and provide our initial assessment. We have returned hundreds of people to their homes as their houses are safe to live in,” said Homraj Acharya, country director of the GFI. His organisation has also been involved in assessing the damage at Basantapur Durbar Square in collaboration with Unesco and the Nepal government.
The NEA has also been providing the service to people in outside Kathmandu. The association’s recent random survey of around 2,500 building in Kathmandu Valley found that most of the houses are unsafe.
But several thousand people are still languishing in makeshift shelters as they have not found an engineer for consultation about the safety of their houses.
Nabin Shah of Kusunti, who was at the NEA office on Sunday looking for an engineer, told the Post that he could not find one despite visiting the association for many days.
“The NEA has some 100 engineers on the list but no one is available,” said Shah.
Though some 16,000 engineers have registered with the NEA, most have gone for overseas jobs creating a shortage of the most needed human resource at this time of need. There are only 400 structural engineers in Nepal.
Experts say there has been little damage to residential houses that had followed the building code, while others violating the building code had crumbled.