In Nepal, a perilous road to assess quake damage and relief needs

Relief officials are grappling with the scale of the Nepal disaster and the difficulty in reaching many areas

The two aid workers had no idea how much earthquake-related death and destruction they would find when they set out on a perilous overnight trip, driving and hiking mudslide-prone roads and trails into the hills near Gorkha.

John O'Donoghue and Dev Raj Gautam reached the village of Paslang, where about three-quarters of the homes had been leveled and two residents had died, early Thursday to assess damages and needs. Later in the day, they arrived at the edge of the village of Chhoprak, which showed less obvious earthquake damage: cracks in bricks walls and concrete foundations.

"We're expecting to see places like this, and places that are just leveled," said O'Donoghue, regional security manager with CARE, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization providing disaster relief. "We have to be realistic. The villages that were flattened are not the only ones who need help. There's the ones that are structurally unsound. So it will be hard to decide who to help."

Almost a week after the magnitude 7.8 quake that killed more than 6,200 people, the death toll and damages in Nepal remained unclear in part because aid workers had yet to assess many rural outposts accessible only by air or on foot.

O'Donoghue and Gautam drove their Toyota Land Cruiser past stepped corn fields carved into hillsides and rice paddies below. The surrounding jungle was thick with ferns and banana palms, the road so narrow that at times moss-covered rock walls almost touched the vehicle windows.

"What are the extent of the damages here?" O'Donoghue asked Adtya Timielsina, 26, when they stopped at the center of Chhoprak.

Timielsina said many of the 1,400 homes in Chhoprak appeared to be damaged. He said five people had died in the earthquake. As he spoke, a crowd of about 100 people gathered, some asking for tents and tarps, afraid to return to their damaged homes.

Gautam, a team leader with CARE, explained that his group planned to return with just such non-food aid. This trip was to assess damage, identify potential delivery routes and talk to villagers.

"We're only here to ask questions now," O'Donoghue said, "But we're going to come back and help."

As relief officials grapple with the scale of the disaster, the United Nations appealed Friday for further support. Donor countries have provided $53 million for emergency aid, less than 13% of the $415 million the U.N. has said will be needed.

"I am heartened and encouraged by the generosity and solidarity shown to date, but I am also conscious of the urgent need to provide emergency shelter and basic goods and services to people affected as the monsoon season rapidly approaches," said Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, who is visiting Katmandu, the capital. "So many people have lost everything."

Though many shops in the capital have reopened and water and fuel shortages have eased, hundreds of thousands of homes across the impoverished mountain nation have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 3 million people need food assistance, according to the U.N.

Katmandu's international airport is crammed with relief supplies sent from around the world. But rugged terrain, a lack of paved roads and weak government institutions have hampered the distribution of aid to some of the worst-affected areas, where traditional mud and brick houses lie in ruins and families are sleeping under plastic sheets or in the open.

O'Donoghue and Gautam were among those getting a close look at the needs.

"We're going to have to do this more and more to get to more remote areas. The last earthquake response most of us refer to is Haiti, but that was a completely urban environment. So this is going to be a bit of a turnaround," O'Donoghue said.

Farther up the road, the aid workers met a group of women in bright red saris who complained that the area had been slighted. One woman said the people here are indigenous and Dalit, or untouchable, the lowest rank in the traditional caste system, some of the poorest in the country. The husbands of some are itinerant workers in the Middle East or elsewhere in Nepal.

"There is a lot of damage. The poor people spent a lot and now they have nothing," said Radha Bhujel, 35, "Because we are the wives of migrant workers, no one cares about us."

O'Donoghue acknowledged that some areas have received more attention and help as local politicians jockey for aid.

Agencies have been flying aid by helicopter to Barpak, a devastated town farther up a mountain that is unreachable by road because of landslides after the earthquake.

At the next village, Bakra Chhoprak, O'Donoghue and Gautam at dusk met a teacher who led them on a 20-minute hike farther into the jungle.

They walked up a rocky river bed, then a series of steep, narrow trails with sheer drops to the river valley below, passing a few brick and stone houses where ears of corn were hung out to dry.

From one doorway, a man watched them wordlessly, head shaved, body wrapped in a traditional white mourning sheet: He was one of several people here who had lost relatives in the earthquake. A helicopter passed overhead.

"Do the helicopters stop here?" O'Donoghue asked as they walked, crushing mint underfoot that mixed with the smell of cooking fires.

"No, that's going to Barpak," said the secondary school teacher, Ash Bdr Guring, 33.

His school is filled with rubble, closed until the government fixes earthquake damage.

Finally they reached a hilltop where they could see Guring's village, a cluster of corrugated roofs and tents at the bottom of the valley. Eight villagers died in the quake.

"I live there," he said, pointing to a tent by a stand of bamboo. "My house is right there, completely destroyed."

As the sun set over the mountains, the teacher asked the aid workers whether they could provide any assistance to his village. They had nothing to offer yet.

O'Donoghue, a Navy veteran who has responded to other disasters, ended the day feeling frustrated. The quake destruction was so scattered.

"None of us, including the U.N., have the resources to support such a dotted response," he said.

This night, it would be the villagers assisting them: Neighbors made them a dinner of local rice and a stew of spinach and potatoes. O'Donoghue was allowed to set up his tent in the yard of the quake-damaged school, and Gautam slept with displaced villagers on outdoor pallets under the full moon.

The next morning, they awoke to find rain had left the road muddy and nearly impassable in places.

They spotted a truck driver loading up rice for sale and asked whether they could finish their planned route (yes) and whether they could rent his three-ton vehicle to transport aid (yes again).

After climbing another hill through a farm of goats and pigeon coops, they found a farmer whose concrete house had cracks big enough to fit a fist into.

"When they look to fix their homes, how will they do it. Do they need supplies or can they do it with what they have here?" O'Donoghue asked.

"They have to import the cement from outside," Gautam said after conferring with the farmer, an elderly man wearing a plaid longyi cloth tied around his waist and a traditional pink and green woven cap called a Dhaka topi.

Two people died in the earthquake, he said.

O'Donoghue glanced at his watch, and they moved on.

"We just don't have enough time to cover everything," he said.

At the next village, Harmi, a local primary school teacher, said about 30 homes had been destroyed, about 100 in the surrounding area. A 4-year-old boy was killed in the quake and about a dozen seriously injured. A fleet of tents had been set up among the debris.

"So no one's basically staying in homes right now?" O'Donoghue said, and the teacher shook his head.

"The people don't have the capital to rebuild," said the village secretary, Dipendra Sah, 22. "Can you please provide some aid so the people can resettle?"

He showed them the police station and health center, their walls cracked and crumbling.

"There's definitely a need to help here," O'Donoghue said.

"How many villages have you seen?" Sah asked.

About a dozen, the pair said. Now they had to prioritize where to send aid first.

"Harmi will probably be it," O'Donoghue said, and Gautam agreed. "You can get heavy trucks through and it's a good node to distribute things from. And honestly, of all the places it seemed hardest hit, where homes were just flattened."

The others they had met, like so many earthquake victims across this small, cash-strapped country, would have to wait.

Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Katmandu contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mollyhf

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