Nepal's devastating earthquake was the disaster experts knew was coming. Just a week ago, about 50 earthquake and social scientists from around the world came to Kathmandu, Nepal, to figure out how to get this poor, congested, overdeveloped, shoddily built area to prepare better for the big one, a repeat of the 1934 temblor that leveled this city. They knew they were racing against the clock, but they didn't know when what they feared would strike. "It was sort of a nightmare waiting to happen," says seismologist James Jackson, lead scientist for Earthquakes Without Frontiers, a group that was having the meeting. "Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen." But he didn't expect the massive quake that struck today to happen so soon.
"I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the very time that the area was heading for trouble," says Jackson. Geohazards International, a group that works on worldwide quake risks, on April 12 updated a late 1990s report summarizing the Kathmandu Valley risks. For years there were no building codes and rampant development, the report said. There are now building codes, but that doesn't help the older structures, and the codes aren't overly strong, says Hari Ghi, southeast Asia regional coordinator for GI. It's made worse because of local inheritance laws that require property be split equally among all sons, Jackson says. That means buildings are split vertically among brothers, making very thin rickety homes that need more space, so people add insecure living space on additional floors.