Hampton University student aids Nepal relief efforts via satellite

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — On April 25, a call came in at 5 a.m. that Alok Shrestha and his wife missed. Soon after came news of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked their homeland, Nepal, killing thousands and destroying homes.

Shrestha, a PhD student at Hampton University, felt helpless to help his family and friends amidst the devastation thousands of miles away. It took two hours to connect, but their parents in Katmandhu were okay.

“Usually, we Skype with them seven or 8 a.m. on Saturday,” Shrestha said. “We were so scared, and we tried to contact our parents. Because of the earthquake, they have to stay outside. They couldn’t live in the house because of those ongoing aftershocks. So, they have been living outside in a tent.”

Shrestha is a contractor at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who specializes in satellite-based remote sensing of Earth. So, he decided to put his expertise to good use: he formed a Facebook page where people of all expertise have come together and found extraordinary things they can do to help. He created a team that began mapping the effect of the recent earthquake to guide the on-going relief efforts on the ground.

“Zooming into this area, taking pre-event and post-event images and then looking at the differences between those two, and see if we can get information from that that we can provide to our local organizers in Nepal,” Shrestha said.

“We used to play around this area, and now, when we go back and see this, it feels very emotional, like we will miss those places,” Shrestha said. “There used to be a helipad in the distance, and now they’re destroyed, and we use satellite images to find flat land where they can land their helicopter with the relief tent.”

The group can use the images to look at the condition of the roads and see how landslides have affected them, to see which routes relief teams should use. They can even tell which open areas are now filled with tent villages where people with destroyed homes have now migrated to for help.

And this isn’t work they’re getting paid for — it’s personal. With this work, there’s no quick fix.

Shrestha has gotten the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton to do a fundraising campaign. He said his department at Science Systems and Applications, Inc. is doing the same. He recommends people who want to help donate to the Red Cross, WCN Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund, or the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

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