Hope of finding survivors in rubble was fading fast Wednesday as the death toll from last weekend’s earthquake in Nepal surpassed 5,500. But after days of complaints about the shortage of aid, a somewhat stronger presence of foreign search-and-rescue teams and assistance convoys was evident in the capital and outlying districts.
A logjam of airplane traffic and passengers began to clear at Katmandu’s airport, where authorities said they had picked up 1.5 tons of trash from the overrun facility. Banks, restaurants and even souvenir shops began to reopen in the capital.
Thousands of people, though, continued to look for ways out of the Katmandu Valley, hitching rides on crowded buses and taxis. Many were returning home to remote villages to assess the effects of the disaster. State-run Radio Nepal said 200,000 people had already left the valley as of late Tuesday and another 200,000 may leave in the coming days.
That exodus could crimp the ability of private businesses and government offices to function. Government authorities ordered civil servants to return to work Thursday, though schools and many other institutions remained closed indefinitely.
Indian, Russian, French, Chinese and Nepalese search-and-rescue teams were working across the capital, trying to find survivors amid collapsed buildings. But four days after the magnitude 7.8 quake, chances of finding anyone alive were slim.
As the sun began to set, Deepak Damai stood on the edge of the Sobhavagbati Bridge in Katmandu, clutching a photo of his 5-year-old son and explaining his agony to a reporter from an Indian TV station. The boy and his mother were in their apartment on the third floor of a seven-story building that collapsed during Saturday’s quake.
Damai, who had been working in Dubai at the time, flew home Monday to search for his wife and son. He watched with despair as Nepalese rescue workers drilled through the layers of concrete, pulling out four bodies. “Those people also lived on the third floor,” he said, his lip trembling.
Rescue workers had dug out 27 bodies so far and still had three more levels to drill through. A police officer said they expected to find a large number of bodies on the lowest level, which had housed an athletic club.
About half a mile away, Indian, Russian and Nepalese teams were using dogs and listening devices to try to locate survivors from three collapsed buildings, including a church where 50 people had been worshiping at the time of the quake.
Subrate Charkrabortui, an Indian physician on the scene, was downbeat. One body had been pulled out Wednesday, he said.
“We could do much more if we had better equipment," he said. "But it is difficult to airlift all the heavy equipment necessary to lift buildings like this.”
Still, there was at least one miraculous rescue: More than three days after the quake, a French team pulled a 27-year-old man from a collapsed three-story hotel.
"I had some hope but by yesterday I'd given up. My nails went all white and my lips cracked.... I was sure no one was coming for me. I was certain I was going to die," Rishi Khanal told the Associated Press from his hospital bed.
By Thursday, the death toll in Nepal had reached 5,530, with thousands injured, according to the latest government figures. Scores more were killed in neighboring India and China’s Tibet region.
The disaster has affected more than 8 million people in Nepal — nearly a quarter of the population — and 1.4 million are in immediate need of food assistance, according to the United Nations.
Tempers flared Wednesday as Prime Minister Sushil Koirala toured Basantapur, one of the worst-hit areas in Katmandu. Some residents tried to block him from entering a square, furious that it had taken him five days to visit, the local Kantipur publication reported.
The leader of Nepal’s Red Cross agreed with critics that the response so far was not ideal.
"The total operation is inefficient,” said Dev Ratna Dhakhwa, the agency's secretary-general, as he surveyed the emergency response tent headquarters in the capital, where volunteers were checking in from around the world before deploying Wednesday.
“There are many places we have not even been able to reach because it is so remote,” he said, such as northern Gorkha, near the epicenter. “People are really suffering there.”
The Nepalese government said it had dispatched eight helicopters to the region northwest of Katmandu, to rescue those most severely injured.
But the problem is not only in isolated villages, some of them cut off by landslides. “Even in accessible places here, we are not in a position to say we have reached everyone.… The magnitude is so great,” Dhakhwa said.
The capital was in what he called the “panic phase” of recovery, with about 700,000 people displaced. Residents had initially been advised to return home after 72 hours, and the aftershocks had apparently stopped. But many were still afraid to sleep indoors.
“We have nearly a quarter-million people still sleeping in the streets,” Dhakhwa said.
That has created overwhelming demand for tarps that the country’s Red Cross can’t meet, even with more than $5 million in emergency aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dhakhwa said his agency is trying to obtain 100,000 tarps, which will be rationed: one for every two families, or about 20 people.
The Red Cross also has distributed water filtration kits to serve about 20,000 people in anticipation of the next phase of the recovery, when temporary camps become more permanent installations for those whose homes have been destroyed.
Demand will then shift from tarps to tents, which are also in short supply.
“Sanitation has become a big problem, because people are in the streets and not in a position to get the right kind of toilet,” Dhakhwa said.
Ramila Maharjan, 27, who works at a mall in Dubai as a cosmetics shop clerk, was urged by relatives to stay away but flew home Wednesday to inspect the damage to their home.
Maharjan’s grandfather was killed when he became trapped by debris at the house outside the capital, and the family was still planning to sleep outside Wednesday.
“I have to go check,” she said as she left the crowded terminal. “I don’t want them to be alone in this critical situation.”
Saurabh Goal, 27, of Delhi was headed in the opposite direction, finally leaving after his flight was repeatedly delayed and he was forced to camp out with a dozen other tourists in a makeshift tent pitched in the airport traffic circle.
He complained of food shortages, inflated black market prices for most other supplies and surly police. “I’m really disheartened. These Nepalese know tourists are important to them – they should behave properly,” the software engineer said.
His friend Yogesh Mhatre, 30, a restaurant consultant, was more sympathetic. “At least have compassion in a difficult situation,” he said.
Paul Dazong and his wife also had been camped at the airport for days after traveling from the Netherlands for a trek.
“We are lucky,” he said, as they sat on a deflated rubber mattress spread on the grass, their backs against a luggage cart.
They had just finished their trek when the quake struck and were evacuated by plane to the capital with victims of an avalanche at the main base camp used by climbers attempting to scale Mt. Everest, including a Japanese woman who they said later died.
At the airport, they had watched international aid arrive, including scores of German and Japanese search-and-rescue teams Wednesday. Indian helicopters passed overhead, ferrying the injured to a nearby military hospital.
“Nepal is a poor country and was not prepared for the damage,” Dazong said. “They need to be better prepared.”
At a parking lot in central Katmandu, Ganandra Misrah, 37, and his family were catching the last bus of the night to their hometown in eastern Nepal after spending three days in a camp.
Misrah said he watched the camp become progressively filthier and worried about his two children, ages 6 and 3.
“Refuse is here and there, bottles on the ground, a very dirty environment. That’s why I worried about my children, about swine flu and other communicable diseases,” he said. “So we are leaving.”
Times staff writer Shashank Bengali and special correspondent Bhrikuti Rai in Katmandu and staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.