KATHMANDU, Nepal – A week after a devastating earthquake leveled many areas of Nepal, the U.S. military is sending up to 500 troops, plus aircraft and equipment, to help deliver supplies that has been stuck at the tiny country’s main airport.
The supplies have been pouring in from around the world but has been slow to reach victims in Katmandu, the capital, as well as smaller towns and villages.
The magnitude 7.8 quake that struck last Saturday killed more than 6,250 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, many stranded in remote areas, some of which have yet to receive help.
The death toll is expected to climb even as search-and-rescue operations begin to wind down this week, a Nepal army official said.
Three U.S. flights scheduled to arrive late Saturday were delayed, according to U.S. and Nepalese officials.
The expanded U.S. military involvement is aimed at relieving the backlog of supplies that have piled up at Katmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, and bringing relief shipments to distribution points across the country, officials said.
Officials said the response mirrors the relief operation in 2005 in Pakistan after an earthquake that killed 86,000 people. Nepal’s high-altitude, mountainous terrain, most of it inaccessible by road, is similar to that of the quake-affected areas of Pakistan.
Among the first U.S. aircraft to arrive, perhaps as early as Sunday, will be four vertical-takeoff Osprey aircraft that will be joined by Army Chinook helicopters and C-130 cargo planes, said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, commander of the operation.
U.S. forces will also being in forklifts to better manage the shipments at the airport, which has only one runway and has been severely congested in the week since the quake.
Already, 25 U.S. service members have created an operations center in a second-story yoga studio on U.S. Embassy-owned grounds in central Katmandu. Military personnel will be housed in tents and at forward staging bases around the country. Some of those sites are operated by the Nepalese military, which has long had close ties to U.S. forces.
“This wasn’t an unknown that this earthquake would happen. We’ve been preparing for it and planning for it,” said Bill Berger, head of disaster response for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is leading the American effort.
The flights will take off and land from Tribhuvan airport as well as several smaller airstrips and helicopter landing zones around the country, Kennedy said. U.S. aircraft are not expected to deliver goods directly to towns or villages but instead will take them to distribution points where Nepalese authorities and international aid agencies will take charge.
“We’ll fill a niche and then will be supplanted by the professionals,” Kennedy said.
The operation has added urgency because of the coming monsoon season, when remote areas become even less accessible, said Berger, who has worked in Nepal for 18 years.
U.S. officials obtained permission Saturday from Nepalese civil aviation authorities to help the country’s air-traffic controllers manage the flights. Among the Air Force personnel deployed are airfield specialists who will work closely with local air traffic staff.
Air Force Lt. Col. Glenn Rineheart commands the Guam-based 36th Mobility Response Squadron that will be speeding the off-loading of aid at the airport.
“The question is how do we get the aid to the people who need it the most? There’s a lot of cargo that’s just being taken off the plane and it starts piling up,” said Rineheart.
Nepal’s army has been working with airport staff and the DHL international shipping company to clear the backlog, he said, but “they’re kind of getting overwhelmed.”
He compared the response here with U.S. military disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.
He said the U.S. took longer to respond in Nepal than in Haiti because of the distance and the time it took to formulate the mission.
“You want to make sure you’re not duplicating” other countries’ responses, he said, For instance, the Indian army also has sent helicopters to assist.
The United Nations has said that 8 million of Nepal’s 28 million people were affected by the quake. At least 2 million are expected to need tents, water, food and medicine during the next three months.
Nepal’s military welcomed the U.S. assistance Saturday-which came just in time, said Nepal army Col. Anand Kumar Adhikari.
“Desperately we need support. People in remote areas, especially where roads are blocked by landslides, that has to be supported,” Adhikari said from his headquarters at the airport, surrounded by white boards listing dozens of countries that have sent aid and military and civilian assistance, including search-and-rescue teams.
Of the country’s 75 districts, 34 suffered some damage, he said. In the case of 14 districts the devastation was severe.
“The critical part now is to deliver relief items” from the 40 tons they have amassed, he said, including ready-to-eat meals, but mostly nonfood supplies they plan to drop from aircraft in remote areas until roads can be cleared.
Adhikari, who served with a yearlong planning group at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in 2012 and is headed to the National War College in two months for a year of study, says the two countries have “good interoperability.”
“They understand us, we understand them,” he said. “For short-term and long-term recovery, the U.S. military are the biggest assets.”
It’s unclear how soon the country and capital will recover.
Katmandu’s largest tent city of displaced residents, Tundikhel, has shrunk from 12,000 to 2,300 residents as those who could, in some cases fearing further tremors, left for outlying areas. Many who remained Saturday said they had nowhere else to go.
Junu Sundash, 19, grew up in an orphanage, then trained as a beautician to help raise her disabled 15-year-old brother before the quake destroyed their apartment building and left them sharing a tent in the camp with 18 others. The mall where she works is still closed due to quake damage. She doesn’t plan to leave her tent any time soon.
“I just want to be able to work at the beauty parlor and help my brother,” she said.
As concern spread about sanitation, Katmandu District authorities banned meat, hoping to prevent disease. They urged residents to wear protective masks, already widely used near quake-damaged buildings, to block the dust and stench.
A week ago, Udab Gautam, 40, went to gather rent at a building he owns in the bustling Gongabu area of the capital. After the quake struck, his younger brother, Suman Phuyal, rushed there to find Gautam’s building reduced to a heap of bricks and twisted metal rods.
Phuyal, 30, has returned every day since.
At first, watching as rescue teams used two construction shovels to clear debris, he was sure that his brother would be found buried alive and rescued. Others were, as late as Thursday.
But by Friday, the teams had recovered five bodies and started using only one shovel. They found seven more bodies at the site Friday, three on Saturday.
A crowd of several hundred gathered to watch, complaining about the stench. Several dozen armed police forced them back, worried that a nearby brick building listing perilously might collapse.
Phuyal watched it all wearing a protective mask that could not shield his tired, tearing eyes.
By the time he left at dusk Saturday, his brother remained among the missing.