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Nepal earthquake: Nobody knows just how bad things are beyond capital

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 - 09:41
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Down a side street in Kathmandu, Sumit Balang watched a bulldozer rummage through bricks, concrete chunks and other pieces of a four-story apartment building left in ruins after an earthquake on Saturday.

[KATHMANDU/NEW DELHI] Down a side street in Kathmandu, Sumit Balang watched a bulldozer rummage through bricks, concrete chunks and other pieces of a four-story apartment building left in ruins after an earthquake on Saturday.

Somewhere in there was his brother. Balang's eyes followed the slow excavation on Tuesday morning before he showed a text message he received the previous night from his older sibling, Amit: "I need food and help." Maybe Amit Balang, 33, was still alive. Maybe he wasn't. It started to rain.

"We're all worried that if they don't find him quickly it'll be too late," said Sumit Balang, 28, standing before a strip of red-and-white barrier tape with his hands on his hips.

More than 72 hours after the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in decades, the death toll climbed past 4,300 with no end in sight. As desperation grows among survivors in the capital, the fate of many villages in the impoverished nation with minimal infrastructure remains unknown.

"You've got border areas near Tibet, so high up in the Himalayas - you can only reach these areas by helicopter," said Patrick Fuller, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who is in Kathmandu. "And the fear is that there are thousands of people up there and many of these homes have been totally demolished." '

Officials in Nepal's government acknowledge they can't contain the sprawling national disaster. Finance Minister Ram S Mahat said authorities in Asia's second-poorest country lack the proper equipment to rescue those trapped under rubble.

"Some relief we are providing, but it is grossly inadequate in relation to the need," Mr Mahat, who estimated rebuilding costs at more than US$10 billion, said in an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday. "This was completely unexpected and the scale of devastation was unimaginable."

Mr Mahat said the number of dead may pass 6,000. The nation's prime minister, Sushil Koirala, told Reuters on the same day that the figure might touch 10,000.

In short, no one knows.

More than two million people live in "severely affected districts," according to a United Nations situation report that is updated regularly. It noted that "dead body management has been a challenge and surgical facilities are overwhelmed." Search teams are "gradually expanding" outside of Kathmandu.

The Indian military -- part of a growing coalition of charitable and government organizations now operating in Nepal -- has been airdropping aid packages from helicopters in rural areas. They're just starting to assess damage beyond Kathmandu, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said on Monday.

"The magnitude of that task I think is something which is just emerging," he told reporters in New Delhi. "I do not think at this stage it is possible to quantify that or frankly even to describe it." In Kathmandu, near where Sumit Balang was searching for his brother, about 200 people clutching plastic buckets and jugs lined up for the neighborhood's first delivery of drinking water since the quake. The white truck held 9,000 litres, and half the water it pumped leaked across the ground.

"By the time it's our turn there's nothing left," said Amar Bika, a balding man with an unkempt moustache and upset look on his face. "We need food, we need water, we need medicine. But we have none of that right now."

A woman standing nearby, Sumita Sitaula, said that she was pinned down by a piece of cement after the earthquake sheered away the front wall of her apartment building. It took four hours for her husband to hear her screams for help - and another 24 hours for India's National Disaster Response Force to dig in and free Ms Sitaula after local police failed to save her.

"I wasn't praying for myself," she said, "I was praying for everyone outside." At Basundhara National Academy, a school normally filled with children in the first through eighth grades, volunteers handed out food on Tuesday. Principal Tanka Kumar Shapagain was surrounded by locals looking for help and answers, both of which were in short supply.

"This is the capital," said Mr Shapagain, who wore a black medical mask and sat at a student desk. "Imagine what the rest of the country is dealing with."

BLOOMBERG

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