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Is this the 'Big Himalayan Quake' we feared?

''Once you have been in an earthquake you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth's breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again, with an even more devastating force. ''

Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

WASHINGTON: Everyone knew it was coming. The Big Himalayan Quake has been predicted for years. There's hardly been a conference or convention of seismologists or geo-physicists that hasn't discussed the imminence of an earthquake in the Himalayan belt, where an active Indian tectonic plate is said to be pushing up against the Tibetan tectonic plate at upwards of 4cm a year, considering a breakneck speed in geological terms.

As recently as February this year, different groups of earthquake experts raised the red flag for the region that includes the entire Gangetic plain in India. C P Rajendran, a senior associate with the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Kushala Rajendran, an associate professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences (CEaS), Indian Institute of Science, and Biju John from the National Institute of Rock Mechanics, who have been researching for years in the region, warned that a natural calamity is long overdue.

In a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience a few months earlier, a research team led by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) predicted on the basis of ground scars left by previous devastating quakes in the region that quakes of the same magnitude could happen again, especially in areas which have yet to have their surface broken by a temblor. Similar studies in the US and Europe have also forecast the Big One.

The small problem: No one has been able to pinpoint the precise area and timing of the temblor.

As the dust settles on the debris and the bodies counted, the big question facing geophysicists is whether this is the Big One or is there more, or worse, a bigger one, in store: No one knows for sure; scientists are still sizing up the data. But short of precise forecasting, even Charles Richter, after whom the measurement of a quake's magnitude is named, suggested other areas of human action to contain the damage and death toll.

Foremost among them is the quality of building construction, which many experts have said needs to be compliant with earthquake resistance metrics. Ranked the world's most 'at-risk' city for earthquakes by GeoHazards International (GHI), Kathmandu has been grappling with this for years. But as is typical in the sub-continent - Delhi take note - it has been a losing battle.

The Nepalese capital adds over 3,000 non-engineered houses every year, according to the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC), a body comprised of government agencies, donors, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and representatives of the United Nations, whose coordinator Moira Reddick, known as the ''Earthquake Lady,'' has been campaigning ceaselessly to address this issue.

On Saturday, friends of Reddick were praying for her well-being, recalling a piece she was quoted in on NPR headlined ''Please Don't Let An Earthquake Hit When I'm In The Shower.''

''Personally, I'm terrified. I've worked in the aftermath of some of the world's biggest earthquakes - Haiti, Bam, Kashmir and Gujarat - but this is going to be far worse,'' Reddick had cautioned. "It gives me nightmares. I have a disaster preparedness kit at the bottom of my garden - a shovel to dig people out, water, tinned food, a battery radio and so on. Other people think I'm crazy but I'm envisaging that I might have to house 30 people in my garden.''

Turns out that people who ignored her might have been the ones who are crazy.

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