As we installed a final round of hardware within the newly constructed visitor’s center, the sky around us turned dark and opaque, and dust began rise with a distant wind current. Within seconds, rain began falling and we hurried to clean up and walk out to the street to find a ride home.
It was at 4:00 am the next morning when we heard shouting amidst roaring thunder, marking the moment that the town became aware of a deadly mudslide in the center of Old Leh.
Without a moment’s hesitation, hundreds if not thousands rushed to the affected area on foot to help in the total darkness. While many of the tourists were mobilized to help, there was no match for the immediate preparedness of locals to help one another. All sprang to their feet, from our own hotel owners and staff to our friend and internet cafe proprietor, Lobzang Dorjee, who later delivered a team of Taiwanese medical students associated with the Red Cross to see injured victims. The inability to call a taxi during the following days, as all drivers were donating their time and resources to the relief effort, was another testament to the devotion of Ladakhis to their fellow people. Several cafes, general stores, and internet hubs began to open, solely to serve hungry and stranded tourists.
The next evening, we were evacuated with much of the city to higher ground. Many opted to camp the night at Shanti Stupa; others atop the mountain to the North. The children of Druk Padma Karpo School were safe for several nights camping in Shey Palace, taken care of by devoted nuns and house-mothers. Without a vehicle in which to hide from the cliff-side rain-pour, we were swept off by a military doctor to sleep in a paramilitary base storage room. The peaceful organization of military, people, and relief workers after the flood was all in spite of the unfamiliarity with such a situation- nothing comparable has befallen the city for as long as even the most elderly citizens can remember.
The catastrophe reminds us of the delicate balance struck between the formidable landscape and the way we have chosen to inhabit it. With much of the Ladakh Himalayan region already only open to tourism only 6 months of the year, the people’s primary livelihood may be threatened for a time. Yet Ladakh is a place of piercing beauty, openness, and serenity. Our hope is that Leh may soon recover, and that we may continue to learn from their way of life. We send our love and thoughts to the families of the several hundred lives lost and over five hundred still missing.
Please continue to monitor http://www.dwls.org/ for updates on the Druk White Lotus School and its students.
We send our love to our colleagues at Druk White Lotus, the school support staff as they return the school to operational status, and our good friend and the Resident Engineer, Anokhee Shah, who remains on site and, with the support of colleagues in the London-based Arup Design Team, will be starting a damage assessment of the buildings and infrastructure, and a risk assessment. The risk assessment will guide the design and implementation of preventive measures to minimise injury and damage in the event of any future flooding or mudslides. Please follow this link Disaster relief for Ladakh school for Arup’s official news release.