GORKHA, Nepal – Preparing to push into the most isolated areas of quake-devastated Nepal, soldiers packed food, water and other emergency supplies to be loaded onto helicopters Tuesday in this small town near the epicenter of the powerful earthquake that has devastated this nation.
Gorkha, a little town that would barely count as a village in much of the world, is the transport and trading hub for surrounding tiny villages. It is now being used as a staging post to get rescuers and supplies to those remote communities after Saturday's magnitude-7.8 quake, which officials say has killed at least 4,400 people.
Aid workers who had reached the edges of the epicenter described entire villages reduced to rubble.
"In some villages, about 90 percent of the houses have collapsed. They're just flattened," said Rebecca McAteer, an American physician who rushed to the quake zone from the distant Nepal hospital where she works.
And yet, the timing of the earthquake — near midday, when most rural people are working in the fields — meant most villagers were spared of injuries when buildings collapsed, she said. So far, police say they have 373 confirmed deaths in the Gorkha district.
Most those injured, she added, were young people and the elderly, since most young men long ago left their villages in search of better-paying work.
"The immediate need is getting support to where it's needed, but there will be a lot of work rebuilding," said McAteer, who was heading back soon to the center of the quake zone.
Thomas Meyer, an engineer with the International Nepal Fellowship who accompanied McAteer to the devastated villages, noted the disaster's aftermath would stretch long into the future.
"This is a long-term emergency," he said. "This will need major attention for the next five years. People have nothing left."
Across central Nepal, including in Kathmandu, the capital, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in the open without clean water or sanitation.
Chaos reigned at Kathmandu's small airport, with the onslaught of relief flights creating major backups on the tarmac. Four Indian air force aircraft carrying communication gear, aid supplies and rescue personnel were forced to return to New Delhi Monday because of airport congestion, tweeted Sitanshu Kar, India's defense ministry spokesman.
The United Nations says it was releasing $15 million from its central emergency response fund for quake victims. The funds will allow international humanitarian groups to scale up operations and provide shelter, water, medical supplies and logistical services, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters Monday.
Trucks carrying food were on their way to affected districts outside the hard-hit and densely-populated Kathmandu valley, and distribution of the food was expected to start Tuesday.
Citing government figures, Haq said an estimated 8 million people have been affected by the quake in 39 of Nepal's districts, and more than 1.4 million need food assistance, including 750,000 who live near the epicenter in poor quality housing.
The U.N. humanitarian country team for Nepal is coordinating international relief efforts with the government and a clearer picture of needs should emerge within the next 48 hours, he said. The immediate priority is search and rescue, and removing debris to find survivors still trapped, he said.
Buildings in parts of the capital, Kathmandu, were reduced to rubble, and there were shortages of food, fuel, electricity and shelter. As bodies were recovered, relatives cremated the dead along the Bagmati River, and at least a dozen pyres burned late into the night.
Conditions were far worse in the countryside, with rescue workers still struggling to reach mountain villages three days after the earthquake.
Udav Prashad Timalsina, the top official for the Gorkha district, said Monday he was in desperate need of help, and was not getting enough from the central government.
The quake was centered in a rugged, isolated part of the Gorkha district, about 20 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the town of Gorkha. Reaching the actual epicenter, though, would require at least a full day's drive over very rough roads, and then a day or more of walking.
The country's death toll rose to 4,352, said Deputy Inspector General of Police Komal Singh Bam. Another 61 were killed in neighboring India, and China's official Xinhua News Agency reported 25 dead in Tibet. At least 18 of the dead were killed at Mount Everest as the quake unleashed an avalanche that buried part of the base camp packed with foreign climbers preparing for summit attempts.
Some 8,063 people have been injured, Bam said. Tens of thousands are believed to be homeless.
The quake has strained the resources of this impoverished country best known for Everest, the highest mountain in the world. The economy of Nepal, a nation of 27.8 million people south of the mountain, relies heavily on tourism, principally trekking and climbing.
Rescue workers and medical teams from at least a dozen countries were helping police and army troops in Kathmandu and surrounding areas, said Maj. Gen. Binod Basnyat, a Nepal army spokesman. Contributions came from large countries like India and China — but also from Nepal's tiny Himalayan neighbor of Bhutan, which dispatched a medical team.
Medical and rescue teams from Russia, Japan, France, Switzerland and Singapore were expected in Kathmandu over the coming days, the Nepal army said.
Fearful of strong aftershocks, tens of thousands of families spent a third night outdoors in parks, open squares and a golf course, bundled against the chilly Himalayan night.
Among them was Prabina Mainali, a 26-year-old teacher who gave birth to a boy Monday in a Kathmandu hospital — a bit of good news in a sea of despair.
"It's hard that he can't be in his own home right now. He should be there, we should be there, but we aren't safe. We're afraid of the aftershocks," Mainali said, feeding the as-yet unnamed infant from a bottle as a half-dozen relatives cooked a meal on a gas cooker outside the tent in a grassy park.
"We're not safe at home. Here we have less to worry about," she said, adding that her house was not seriously damaged, but windows and other glass inside was shattered.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Binaj Gurubacharya in Kathmandu contributed to this report.