It was some eight years ago.

Kinzang Dema can vividly remember how an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude hit eastern Bhutan. She was 42 then.

The mother of three said she was in the kitchen doing dishes after the afternoon meal when the earthquake struck Trashigang.

“I saw the plates and glasses slowly tilting towards the other side until it fell on the ground,” she said. “The whole house was moving and I was just there standing still at the corner.”

It was the first time Kinzang Dema experienced an earthquake of this magnitude. “I wanted to scream and call my husband and children but I couldn’t. I was brought back to my senses only when my son came and dragged me out of the kitchen.”

An hotelier in Trashigang, Sonam Dorji, said he was planning a party at his hotel to celebrate the blessed rainy day the next day when that earthquake occurred. As he was taking notes at the counter, the liquors started falling off.

“There was nothing I could do but to stand there and see the bottles falling,” the 52-year-old businessman said. “I’ve experienced minor tremors in the past but this was different. It was unexpected and a frightening experience that no one experienced would easily forget.”

He said that the residents of the town had to sleep outside for almost a week in the fear that another tremor would bring the buildings down.

On September 21, 2009, the earthquake with its epicentre in Narang, Mongar, struck the six eastern dzongkhags. The tremor that began at 2:53pm lasted for 95 seconds and had a shallow depth of 10km in and around the epicentre.

Since then more than 100 aftershocks and two major earthquakes of magnitude 5.3 and 5.5 on the Richter scale (on October 29 and December 31, 2009) respectively, have been recorded, which have caused further damages to rural homes and other properties.

According to the officials from Department of Disaster Management (DDM), the earthquake on September 21 has been the most damaging disaster that the country has experienced in recent times.

The earthquake claimed 12 lives and caused damages worth Nu 2,501 million (M). As per the damage assessment reports received from the affected dzongkhag administrations, 4,950 rural homes, 117 schools, 45 BHUs, 29 RNR centres and 26 gewog offices were damaged including 539 choetens, 281 lhakhangs and eight dzongs

Although there was no significant damage in the town areas in Trashigang, the public infrastructures like the Trashigang dzong and the Pam community primary school suffered major cracks.

While the renovation and conservation work at the dzong is still underway, the Pam CPS was reconstructed from the ground. Modern concrete buildings have replaced the former two-storey traditional architecture at the school.

As of today, infrastructures have been rebuilt. People have been compensated for their losses. The dzongkhag, however, is silently preparing itself should there be another such emergency in the future.

DDM’s focal person in the dzongkhag, Phuntsho Wangdi, said that since the major earthquake in 2009, the dzongkhag has been preparing for other impending natural calamities including earthquakes.

He said that a disaster response and coordination process has been formed both at the national and dzongkhag level. “The process would enable various responding agencies in organising, responding and coordinating disaster responses.”

A temporary onsite management hierarchy called as the incident command system (ICS) has also been adapted. The ICS has standardised procedures for managing incidents and disasters of any size without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries.

Under the ICS, the operational section would be looked after by the dzongrab under whom the Royal Bhutan Police, dzongkhag health officer, kidu officer and dzongkhag engineer would look after the search and rescue including evacuation, medical services, shelter and relief and immediate restoration works respectively.

The incident commander under the system will be the dzongdag.

Phuntsho Wangdi said that all the roles and responsibilities are assigned to individual members of the dzongkhag during times of disasters.

He said that the system would be effective in handling all most all the disasters.

Along with the ICS, Trashigang is also equipped with one of the nine seismic monitoring stations in Gongthung under Yangnyer gewog. The station has an earthquake source-monitoring sensor that would feed data to headquarter in Thimphu during times of seismic activities.

A seismic intensity metre is installed in the dzongkhag headquarter and that would measure and display intensity of the activity.

Trashigang dzongdag, Chekey Gyeltshen said that with all the preparedness measures in place, they feel they are prepared.

He said the ICS is ready and available at all times should there be any disasters in the dzongkhag.

Dzongdag Chekey Gyeltshen said that every month all the schools conduct mock drills on the earthquake in line with the earthquake preparedness. “People are made aware of the safety measures to be taken during times of disasters and we’re planning to conduct a mock drill for the public and the dzongkhag administration by the end of the year.”

He said that a six-member town safety committee has also been formed to conduct routine monitoring of the safety practices at residential and business areas.  “Should communication lines fail during times of disasters, the dzongkhag also distributed 10 wireless radio communication sets to concerned individuals.”

As one of the immediate responders during times of disasters, the dzongkhag is also increasing its DeSuup capacity. Currently, there are 83 DeSuup in Trashigang.

Younten Tshedup |  Trashigang