GORKHA, Nepal — Preparing to make a push into the most isolated parts of quake-devastated Nepal, soldiers on Tuesday were readying food, water and other emergency supplies to be loaded onto helicopters in this small town near the earthquake's epicenter.
Gorkha, which would barely count as a village in much of the world, is the district's administrative, transport and trading center for surrounding tiny villages. It was being used as a staging post to get rescuers and supplies to those remote communities, some of which are believed to be nearly completely destroyed. The death toll from Saturday's magnitude-7.8 quake rose past 4,400, officials said.
"In the rural areas, 90 percent of the people have been affected by this calamity," district official Surya Mohan Adhikari said. "They have lost their homes and livestock, they have no way of getting food."
"It is very difficult to reach them," he added. "They are cut off by road slides on the mountain roads, and the wind and rain is making it difficult for helicopters to land."
Nepal was facing a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands rendered homeless by the earthquake are living in the open without clean water or sanitation.
Chaos reigned back 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 Npael'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, Haq 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. Some roads and trails to the Gorkha district were blocked by landslides — but also by traffic jams that regularly clog the route north of Kathmandu.
World Vision aid worker Matt Darvas arrived in the district Monday afternoon and said almost no assistance had reached there ahead of him.
Newer concrete buildings were intact, Darvas said, but some villages were reported to be devastated. He cited a "disturbing" report from the village of Singla, where up to 75 percent of the buildings may have collapsed and there has been no contact since Saturday night.
Timalsina said 223 people had been confirmed dead in Gorkha district but he presumed "the number would go up because there are thousands who are injured."
He said his district had not received enough help from the central government, but Jagdish Pokhrel, a clearly exhausted army spokesman, said nearly the entire 100,000-soldier army was involved in rescue operations.
"We have 90 percent of the army out there working on search and rescue," he said. "We are focusing our efforts on that, on saving lives."
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 to make their 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.
Two teams of U.S. Army Green Beret soldiers happened to be in Nepal when the quake struck, and the 26 Americans — who were training with the Nepalese army — are staying to help with search-and-relief efforts. The 11-member crew of a C-130 cargo plane that brought them also will remain to evacuate any American citizens if needed, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. A second U.S. cargo plane carrying members of a Los Angeles urban search-and-rescue team was due to arrive Tuesday, he said.
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, and Muneeza Naqvi, Tim Sullivan and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.