KATHMANDU: Runway damage forced Nepalese authorities to close the main airport Sunday to large aircraft delivering aid to millions of people following the massive earthquake, but U.N. officials said the overall logistics situation was improving.
The death toll climbed to at least 7,040, including 51 found over the weekend on a popular trekking route, said government administrator Gautam Rimal. But that number is expected to continue to grow with scores still missing from a single village hit by an avalanche. Nepal’s Tourist Police reported that a total of 57 foreigners have been killed in the April 25 quake, and 109 are still missing.
The main runway was temporarily closed to big planes because of damage. It was built to handle medium-size jetliners, but not the large military and cargo planes that have been flying in aid supplies, food, medicines and rescue and humanitarian workers, said Birendra Shrestha, the manager of Tribhuwan International Airport, located on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
There have been reports of cracks on the runway and other problems at the only airport capable of handling jetliners.
“You’ve got one runway, and you’ve got limited handling facilities, and you’ve got the ongoing commercial flights,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. coordinator for Nepal.
“You put on top of that massive relief items coming in, the search and rescue teams that has clogged up this airport. And I think once they put better systems in place, I think that will get better.”
He said the bottlenecks in aid delivery were slowly disappearing and that the Nepalese government eased customs and other bureaucratic hurdles on humanitarian aid following complaints from the U.N.
Airport congestion was only the latest complication in the global effort to aid people in the wake of the April 25 quake, the impoverished country’s biggest and most destructive in eight decades. Nepal’s geography of high mountains and difficult road networks “is always going to be a challenge,” McGoldrick said. Airlifting goods by helicopter “right now is quite limited,” he said.
People in Nepal — both in remote villages and the capital, Kathmandu — have complained about not seeing any rescue workers or international aid and about a lack of temporary shelters, with many sleeping out in the open because of fears of aftershocks bringing down their damaged homes.
U.N. humanitarian officials said that they were increasingly worried about the spread of disease. They said more helicopters were needed to reach isolated mountain villages that were hard to access even before the quake.
The true extent of the damage from the earthquake is still unknown as reports keep filtering in from remote areas, some of which remain entirely cut off. The U.N. says the quake affected 8.1 million people — more than a quarter of Nepal’s 28 million people.
Laxi Dhakal, a Home Ministry official, said hopes of finding survivors had faded dramatically. “Unless they were caught in an air pocket, there is not much possibility,” he said.
But that’s what happened Sunday. Three people were pulled alive from the rubble of their home eight days after Nepal’s devastating earthquake.
The small-scale rescue, announced on Sunday by a home ministry official, brought fresh hope to a badly hit district northeast of the capital Kathmandu, but about 50 bodies were also discovered on a northern trekking route obliterated by an avalanche that the April 25 quake triggered.
That same avalanche also swept away an entire village, and scores are still missing, officials said.
The village of Langtang in the northern district of Rasuwa was on a popular trekking route and had 55 guesthouses. It was not clear how many people were there at the time of the avalanche.
At least 200 villagers and trekkers were still missing in Langtang, said Uddhav Bhattarai, the district’s senior bureaucrat. “We had not been able to reach the area earlier because of rains and cloudy weather,” he said by telephone.
Ganga Sagar Pant, the head of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, said the avalanche had completely wiped out the village.
“All that is left is scattered belongings like bags and coats, all the houses have been thrown down the mountain,” he said. “There is nothing left. I don’t think anyone can survive that.” (Wire services)
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