In this May 12, 2015 photo provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Los Angeles County Fire Department urban search and rescue team memebres work to recover survivors from a four-story building that collapsed in the earthquake in Singati, a mountain village in Nepal. The temblor was an aftershock to the April 25 main Gorkha earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people. The Disaster Assistance Response Team included 57 urban search and rescuers each from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, Va. (Kashish Das/USAID/via AP)

Courtesy of USAID

“What do you need?”

When a powerful earthquake shook Nepal in April 2015, killing more than 8,000 people, Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Andrew Olvera and his team quickly deployed to assist with recovery efforts. A crucial part of their success was building trust with the Nepalese authorities. Rather than arriving with orders, like some other international aid organizations, Olvera first asked the Nepalese search and rescue, “What do you need?” After providing searchlights, Olvera asked, “What else do you need?” — which became the mantra of the Fire Department’s assistance.

The whole operation was dangerous, but it’s risk versus gain.  To save a human life, we’ll risk almost everything.”
– Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Andrew Olvera

Five days after the earthquake struck, rescuers heard a voice crying for help from beneath the rubble of a hotel in the capital, Kathmandu. Olvera and his team rushed to the scene. For four hours, American and Nepalese rescuers worked side by side, painstakingly digging through the rubble, removing pieces of concrete by hand.  Finally, 15-year-old Pemba Lama was rescued as crowds of cheering Nepalese looked on. Despite being severely dehydrated, the teenager was unharmed. He was soon reunited with his parents, who also survived despite being in an upper floor of the hotel when the earthquake hit.

USAID and Natural Disasters

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) works with partners to coordinate relief efforts for an average of 65 disasters in more than 50 countries every year, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and floods.

A country that has suffered a major setback due to a natural disaster is more likely to regain stability and prosperity when its citizens have food, water, housing, and health care. In addition to helping onsite, USAID teams provide training and equipment for local first responders.

helmet artifact
LA Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue helmet

Collection of the National Museum of American Diplomacy