On Tuesday afternoon, Pheta rural municipality of Bara district in southern Nepal had an air of a fun fair. Horse-drawn carriages and brightly painted auto-rickshaws brought visitors from neighbouring villages and towns. Trucks and trailers came with sacks of rice and vegetables.

Some others came just for a look. People were busy taking selfies and snapping photographs of the locals. A group of students marched with their teacher who explained that they had come for an educational trip, to experience what a disaster zone looks like.

The residents of Pheta had nowhere to escape to. Most had just lost their homes. Some had just lost their loved ones. They stood guard, keeping watch over their belongings – the little they had managed to recover. They wore a look of shock and disbelief as people stared at them, as if they were specimens in a zoo.

For residents of Pheta, about 120km from the capital, Kathmandu, normal life came undone on Sunday. Around 7:30 in the evening, fierce winds started, uprooting trees and throwing vehicles in the air. Locals say the wind was warm and it moved in circular motion; a phenomenon they’d never experienced before.

No one understands our pain and grief. The whole village is in mourning but for others it is a festival

Devi Patel, resident of Pheta

Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology says the wind speeds were more than 90 kilometers an hour. In less than two minutes, at least 31 people had died, hundreds were injured and more than 2,400 homes had been damaged – around 900 flatted to the ground.

Disasters are not new to Nepal. Between 2000 and 2017, more than 16,000 people lost their lives to natural calamities. This includes the earthquake in 2015 when more than 9,000 people died.

The local government, the first in two decades, found itself overwhelmed [Bishnu Kalpit/Al Jazeera]

Nepal’s first democratic constitution passed in 2015 has a disaster mitigation plan, sharing the burden between the three layers of government – federal, provincial and local – created to devolve power.

Nepal elected representatives to all the three organs of the state in 2017 and soon the new parliament endorsed the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act.

‘The early warning system’

While on paper the plan looks good, the first step for disaster reduction, the early warning system, failed. The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology released a statement on Monday saying they don’t have enough equipment and human resources for these ‘unexpected’ occurrences.

Dozens killed as storm hits southern Nepal

Like often, the best in people did come in times of need. According to the district officials from both Bara and Parsa districts, locals along with security forces responded within minutes in the aftermath of the storm.

The injured and the dead were loaded in vehicles and taken to the local hospitals. Social media came alive, with volunteers organising blood donations. People started collecting money, food and even school supplies.

The provincial government pledged $3,000 to each victim who died and the federal government promised to rebuild the houses.

But the government’s disaster mitigation plans that should have translated in to action, did not.

Beda Nidhi Khanal, Under Secretary of National Emergency Operation Centre, told Al Jazeera that confusion on jurisdiction has made things difficult.

Chief District Officer for Bara, Rajesh Poudel, told Al Jazeera that they have a disaster plan but “not one for thunderstorms”.

His office, the district administration office, which falls under the federal government’s home ministry, is supposed to coordinate with the local government. By Wednesday, the office had finally put together a committee for creating a database, an inventory of all those affected.

‘We are left with nothing’

Without a database, it was a freefall for relief distributors. On Tuesday, local NGOs and political cadres were distributing food rations and tents, haphazardly.

Several local residents told Al Jazeera that people near the road head were getting several tarpaulin sheets but in the interiors, they had not received any. Tempers flared intermittently. People, who had lost everything, found themselves fighting for relief material.

The local government, the first in two decades, found itself overwhelmed.

Khanal from the National Emergency Operation Centre said that the local government’s performance has been poor.

“They haven’t told us how many people have received relief or how many still are in need. They haven’t demanded anything, neither relief materials nor money, from the federal government.” 

Amiri Shah, head of the Pheta Rural Municipality, has been coping with the influx of senior political leaders, party representatives as well as other officials – all of whom want to distribute relief material on their own terms.

“If they come through us, they can still distribute themselves but in areas that need it. But everyone wants to distribute where they please. That’s why our disaster-hit village is like a festival site,” he told Al Jazeera.

The problems of leaderships, coordination, seniority and jurisdiction among the layers of governments has created a level of bitterness for the survivors of the storm.

“We are left with nothing. The big politicians and government babus came and spoke to us but they are not giving us shelter fast enough,” said Devi Patel, sitting on the rubble of her damaged home.

“We are sick of cameras and people taking our photos, including you. No one understands our pain and grief. The whole village is in mourning but for others it is a festival.”

A woman sits in the middle of the debris of a residential house damaged in in Bara district [Niranjan Shrestha/The Associated Press]

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