January 3, 2006

Quake Aid Flights Grounded for Third Day in Pakistan

By Robert Birsel

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Relief flights were grounded for a third straight day in northern Pakistan's earthquake zone on Tuesday and aid workers scrambled to help cold, wet survivors after two days of heavy snow and rain.

British aid group Oxfam said survivors were facing the desperate decision of whether to abandon their mountain homes and seek shelter at lower, warmer altitudes and immediate steps had to be taken to help those with inadequate shelter.

Despite the bad weather, health agencies said they had seen no spike in illness since the snow and rain started on Saturday night, nor any deaths related to the cold.

"There's been no leap (in cases), the signs are looking good," International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Jessica Barry said in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

More than two million people have been living in tents or crude shelters patched together from their ruined homes since the October 8 quake killed more than 73,000 people.

The weight of snow brought tents crashing down in the mountains and the heavy rains triggered fresh landslides that have again blocked roads. Snow has also blocked roads.

A hazy sun broke through the fog and cloud over Muzaffarabad intermittently on Tuesday and several helicopters took off. But all air aid operations were off, the army said.

Snow-covered peaks around the city could be seen for the first time as the clouds broke up.


The U.N. refugee agency said many children had inadequate clothing, some with no shoes.

Many people are without adequate shelter -- living in snow in summer tents -- because of a shortage of corrugated iron sheets for building.

"We feel that the situation is desperate ... there is a serious need to winterise the tents," said Farhana Farooqi Stocker, Oxfam's country representative.

In so-called spontaneous camps that sprung up in valleys across the region, many shelters were flooded.

"We didn't get any help for the last few days, we've just had problems with the mud and water," said Zarina Bibi, standing holding a baby outside her drenched tent in a Muzaffarabad camp.

"If the army hadn't drained the area we would have drowned."

U.N. and other aid workers have been touring the camps handing out plastic sheets, while the World Food Programme distributed high-energy biscuits for people unable to cook outside because of the rain.

"The people who had been complacent about the instructions we've been giving them to make (drainage) channels ... did get washed out and we had some very bad problems," said Morgan Morris of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The situation in camps organised by the government and the United Nations was much better, she said.

Earlier in the relief operation, aid workers had expressed fears that the winter could herald a second wave of deaths. But clear skies in December meant Tuesday was only the fourth day that vital helicopter relief operations had to be suspended.

The good weather allowed aid groups to position shelter materials, bedding, food and medical supplies high up in the mountains, where people should have enough to sustain them for weeks, even if they are cut off by snow.

There have been fears that the onset of the cold, wet weather would trigger an exodus of people from the mountains into congested camps in the valleys, but there has been no sign of that yet.

(Additional reporting by Suzanna Koster)