MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – The U.S. military promised to keep flying helicopter relief missions to help survivors of Pakistan's worst earthquake through the harsh winter, as a bleak weather forecast for Tuesday loomed over hundreds of thousands of people living without shelter.
Temperatures were expected to dip to around 44 degrees in the shattered city of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (search), and as low as 10 degrees in the highest mountain villages, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (search) reported.
Snow was expected in villages around 11,000 feet, the department reported.
With the brutal Himalayan winter approaching, the relief effort is rushing to deliver tents, food and medicine to victims of the Oct. 8 quake before villages are cut off by snow and helicopter-grounding fog. About 80,000 people are believed to have died in the 7.6-magnitude temblor, and the U.N. has warned that thousands more could die without adequate aid.
Rear Adm. Mike LeFever, commander of the U.S. disaster assistance center near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad (search), said the U.S. military would not cut back its current deployment of helicopters for the relief effort. Currently, 29 American choppers are in action, mostly heavy-lifting Chinooks.
"We are not going to diminish our helicopter support. This is long-term support. We are going to be standing by our friends, and we expect the other international communities to be able to do that," he told reporters during a visit to Muzaffarabad (search) on Tuesday.
LeFever emphasized the importance of supporting the aid effort "throughout the winter months that are coming."
He said that in the coming days, a U.S. military construction battalion would be establishing a helicopter refueling center at Muzaffarabad airfield so choppers would not have to keep making shuttle flights to the main air base for relief flights at the garrison city of Rawalpindi, about 60 miles to the southwest.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's military was setting up relief camps and a field hospital for quake victims along its disputed Kashmiri border with India. That followed a weekend agreement with rival India to open their heavily guarded frontier to speed the relief effort.
India has already set up three relief camps on its side of the border.
Relief groups and quake survivors have praised Sunday's unprecedented border deal, which allows relief goods to be sent in either direction and handed to local authorities at the crossings beginning Nov. 7. Only Kashmiri civilians with families divided by the border will be allowed to cross on foot.
Medics are reporting various health problems among survivors, including respiratory infection, tetanus and infected injuries. Doctors working in remote villages also say about 20 percent of patients show signs of the skin infestation scabies — possibly contracted from donated clothing.
Donated clothes "were already dirty when they got here, and it's a possible cause," said Dr. Khalid Zurmati from neighboring Afghanistan. Scabies is caused by tiny mites.
So many used clothes have been shipped to the area that earthquake victims have in some cases burned them for fuel or used them to dress their livestock against the cold. Authorities have asked people to donate food and medicine instead of clothing.
With international aid key to helping survivors through the winter, Pakistan is hosting a donors' conference on reconstruction on Nov. 19 in Islamabad. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is among those expected to attend.
The U.N. says an estimated 800,000 people still lack any form of shelter.
Pakistan's official death toll from the Oct. 8 quake stands at 57,597, with 78,800 injured. However, central government figures have lagged behind those of local governments, who put the number of dead at about 80,000.
Another 1,350 people died in Indian-held Kashmir. An estimated 800,000 people still lack any form of shelter.