January 4, 2006

Aid helicopters flying again in Pakistan quake zone

By Robert Birsel

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Relief helicopters were
flying again in Pakistan's earthquake zone on Wednesday after
snow and rain grounded them for days, but forecasters warned
more frigid weather would add to the misery of survivors.

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

A cold spell struck on Saturday, blanketing highland areas
with snow, while icy rain flooded lowland tent camps.

Vital helicopter flights were grounded, though some resumed
late on Tuesday.

"We are up and flying. We will be back to 100 percent
tomorrow," said Natasha Hryckow, the U.N. logistics chief in
Muzaffarabad, the capital or Pakistani Kashmir and the center
of a huge relief operation.

The Pakistani army has launched a major effort since the
weekend to clear landslides and a spokesman, Major Farooq
Nasir, said the road to the Neelum Valley was likely to be open
by the end of the day.

Pakistan's Meteorological Office said there was little
chance of more rain or snow in the quake zone on Wednesday and
only isolated falls were expected in the coming week.

But it said temperatures were falling and lows of minus 4
to minus 14 degrees Celsius (24 degrees to 6 degrees F) in the
mountains around Muzaffarabad could drop further to between
minus 6 and minus 16 Celsius (21 and 3.2 F).

Despite the bad weather, health agencies said they had seen
no spike in numbers of sick people since the snow and rain
started on Saturday night, nor any deaths from the cold.


The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week
it is expecting a flood of new cases of respiratory infections
at its field hospitals and clinics when the weather clears
enough for people to venture out.

Akiko Ito, deputy manager of the ICRC hospital in
Muzaffarabad, said no rise in cold-related diseases had been
seen yet and added: "Everything is running as normal."

Thanks to international aid, the quake zone has seen a huge
improvement in the availability and quality of health care. But
a stark warning of the threats to remote communities has come
from a mountain area far to the northeast.

As many as 35 children have died of pneumonia since last
week in the Gultari area after heavy snowfall in which
temperatures plummeted as low as minus 30 Celsius (-22 F).

Earlier in the relief operation, aid workers had voiced
fears winter could herald a second wave of deaths in the quake
zone. But unexpectedly clear skies throughout December meant
aid groups were able to position shelter materials, food and
medical supplies high in the mountains.

Even so, many people are living in summer tents in the snow
because of a shortage of corrugated iron sheets for building.
Many tents collapsed in the snowfall.

British aid group Oxfam warned that survivors were facing a
desperate decision of whether to abandon mountain homes to seek
shelter at lower, warmer altitudes and immediate steps were
needed to help many people with inadequate shelter.

Shamsuddin Ahmad, a spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund
said tens of thousands of children needed warm clothes and
winter shoes, particularly in the mountains.

"The first thing that we dispatched with the helicopters is
children's warm clothes kits," he said.

(Additional reporting by Suzanna Koster)