International aid has started arriving in Nepal, as the country’s earthquake death toll exceeded 2,000 people Sunday. The deadly 7.8 magnitude quake struck just before noon Saturday local time, with its epicenter 50 miles northwest of the capital city of Kathmandu. Sections of Kathmandu were flattened — with many of the deaths reportedly occurring in the city — while the quake caused lethal avalanches on Mount Everest, during peak climbing season. The worst earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 years, Saturday’s seismic activity left more than 2,200 people dead, while over 5,500 were injured. (Update: The death toll has now risen to over 3,800 dead, and more than 6,000 people are thought to be injured.)
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala flew back to Kathmandu, as Nepalese police officials reported that up to 700 people had died in the city alone. An avalanche triggered by the quake partially hit Everest Base camp, causing at least 18 deaths and injuring 61 others. One hundred climbers above the base are known to be safe, but their route has been compromised by the geological activity, while many other people on the mountain remain unaccounted for.
Thousands of people in Kathmandu and elsewhere spent the night outside, too afraid to re-enter their homes. “We hardly slept through the night,” Kathmandu resident, Ratna Singh, told The Guardian. “It was cold and it rained briefly and it was uncomfortable but I am glad I brought my family out to the open.”
The current death toll is expected to rise, although earthquake damage has rendered some remote areas difficult to reach; mountain roads have been cracked or blocked by landslides. Kathmandu’s hospitals — the destination of many casualties — are struggling to cope with the influx of patients. “We have launched a massive rescue and rehabilitation action plan and lots needs to be done,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Minendra Rijal told an Indian television station. “Our country is in a moment of crisis and we will require tremendous support and aid.”
International relief efforts kicked off quickly, hoping to make the most of the window during which people might still be found alive. On Sunday, the U.S. pledged $1 million to the effort, and promised to send a disaster response team. Australia, meanwhile, has pledged a substantial $5 million in aid, with Norway offering $3.9 million. Sri Lanka, India, Britain, Pakistan, and China have all pledged relief teams, experts and equipment. Aid from India and China has already reached Nepal, with Indian helicopters deployed to remote areas. Organizations such as Red Cross, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and Christian Aid have also pledged assistance.
As soon as the Kathmandu airport reopened Sunday, planes bearing aid began to arrive. But they have a lot to contend with. BBC News reports that erratic internet and mobile phone service has rendered communication difficult. “A lot of the roads are blocked, there's rubble, there's been landslides as well... So that is going to make the aid effort very difficult,” British Red Cross spokeswoman Penny Sims told the news service. Medical staff at the capital’s hospitals expressed concern that supply shortages and overcrowding would make treatment difficult. Patients have been moved outside, in some cases, for fear that aftershocks might cause hospitals to collapse. AP reports that operating theaters have been established in hospital parking lots.
The quake has devastated the historic center of Kathmandu, although Pete Pattisson told The Guardian that damage to rural areas may actually be more devastating. “Kathmandu, for the most part, is still standing,” he said, “defying predictions of catastrophic destruction in the event of a major earthquake. … But get off the main road to where the city meets the countryside and the damage is more extensive.” Supplies of water, electricity and food are all in jeopardy. “Our village has been almost wiped out,” Vim Tamang, a resident of Manglung, near the quake’s epicenter, told The Guardian. “Most of our houses are either buried by landslide or damaged by shaking.” Tamang added that most of the village's inhabitants were either missing or dead.
The government has begun setting up relief stations — 16 so far — across the country, which are intended to distribute water, food and medicine. A state of emergency has been called, and the government has announced that schools will remain closed for five days at least. It also implored government workers to engage in local rescue efforts rather than show up for work. The disaster has placed this poor Himalayan nation of 28 million under extreme strain. Dr. Ilan Kelman, from the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College, London, told The Guardian:
Nepal has some of the world’s best people and initiatives for community-based seismic risk reduction and earthquake education. But the country has also suffered terrible conflicts, poor governance and heart-wrenching poverty, all of which created and perpetuated the vulnerability which has been devastatingly exposed during the shaking.
On Mount Everest — the main drawcard in a country that depends heavily on the tourism industry — nearly 800 people are still stationed at Base Camp, and camps further up the mountain. Two-dozen climbers, en route Saturday from Camp 1 to Camp 2, are missing. Helicopters have managed to airlift most of Base Camp’s 61 injured to Kathmandu, while at least 300 people are reportedly waiting to be ferried out at Lukla, described as "the gateway to the mountain."
Reuters has compiled a "factbox" of foreigners in Nepal at the time of the quake. The agency reports that 300,000 foreign nationals were in the country for the trekking season. Large contingents from Australia, France, Austria, India, Israel, and South Korea are safe, although some injuries have been registered. Four Chinese travelers have been reported dead. Some countries (England, for one) have yet to release details, and many travelers remain unaccounted for.
Victims of the quake have been reported as far afield as India, Bangladesh, and in the Chinese region of Tibet. At least 57 people across three Indian states have been reported dead. Pope Francis led prayers for the dead and displaced from St. Peter’s Square.
Images: Getty Images (4)