US military helicopters arrived Monday from neighboring Afghanistan, assigned to help out in the relief effort of a key US ally devastated by the Oct. 8 earthquake. But on arrival in Pakistan, severe thunderstorms and hail kept the choppers all but grounded Tuesday, a source of frustration here.
"Thunderstorms are preventing us from doing our job," says Staff Sgt. Lance Albert, a member of a five-man chopper crew of the Oregon National Guard, aboard a Chinook helicopter.
The official toll of Saturday's temblor stands at 20,000, but the figure is expected to rise as relief workers from Pakistan and as far away as Russia, Britain, and Turkey reach villages cut off by the earthquake and recurring landslides.
For now, the greatest need Pakistan faces is helicopters, the only means of transport left to ferry large amounts of aid into the quake-affected Himalayan region of Kashmir. Most roads remain cut off from landslides. Destruction at larger airports has rendered fixed-wing transport planes such as the Pakistan military's C-130s practically useless. But on days like Tuesday, when weather turns severe, there is simply no way to ferry supplies of food and medicines, which are running critically low.
Vincent Lusser, spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, says that there is a clear need for more helicopter capacity in this disaster.
"It's extremely mountainous, and even when there aren't landslides, it is difficult for lorries to make it around the corners of those windy roads," says Mr. Lusser. "So obviously, it's useful to have helicopters that can make the trip in half an hour, when it takes about 10 hours to drive."
Like many humanitarian organizations, ICRC has begun to hire its own helicopters to ferry in supplies and transport wounded to its mobile hospitals. Three such helicopters should be arriving later this week.
Much of the relief effort is being borne by military transport. Pakistan's military has 122 transport helicopters and 22 attack helicopters, according to The Military Balance 2004-2005 put out by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. And nearly 30 helicopters have arrived from foreign nations, including eight US military choppers borrowed from operations in Afghanistan. Two from Germany arrived Tuesday, and four from Afghanistan were expected to arrive later in the day.
More air support is on the way. The US Navy has set up a Joint Mobile Ashore Support Terminal to coordinate communications. By Wednesday, two C-17 Globemaster III airplanes will deliver 18 palettes of tents, cots, and food, and four more helicopters will arrive to aid in transportation.
In Islamabad, President Pervez Musharraf asked for patience. "We are doing whatever is humanly possible," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Tuesday announced a new appeal for some $272 million to cover the first six-month emergency phase of the relief effort. UN officials said there is an urgent need for winterized tents and medical care.
At Chaklala Air Base, eight US helicopters took off carrying tons of flour, rice, and tents. They returned with hundreds of injured.
Sergeant Albert's Chinook helicopter, nicknamed "Hell Raiser" for its exploits on wartime missions, brought back 22 injured from Muzaffarabad, a 35-minute flight away from the capital, Islamabad. It took an hour to offload injured, refuel, and then load sacks of flour and tents.. It was accompanied by a Blackhawk, called "Evil Monkey," which was loaded with rice. Both helicopters were assigned Pakistani Army officers to navigate the mountains leading to Pakistan Kashmir's capital, Muzaffarabad.
On their second run, starting at 11:23 a.m, the day appeared beautiful and sunny. But as they flew farther into the mountains, the weather took a turn for the worse. Raindrops streamed down the windshield, and farther ahead, low-lying black clouds formed a virtually impenetrable barrier. After a futile effort to press on, the helicopters retreated by 11:54 am. The weather was too bad to fly.
It's tough, seeing the devastation," says Chief Warrant Officer Dave Mynott, the pilot of the Blackhawk. "They need our help, but with the weather, you have to balance. You don't want to risk the crew and the helicopter."
Chief Warrant Officer Grant Rush, the pilot of the Chinook, adds, "It's kind of what we are doing back home. We go out and have to deal with disasters like brush fires. But what's different here is the tragedy. As we are flying we can see the whole city was demolished."
On the ground at Chaklala, aid workers from Hungary and Russia shift from one foot to the other, standing with their rucksacks. They are frustrated sitting still, and they are starting to get bad news from Kashmir. Looting of relief goods from the trucks of local aid groups has begun. Law and order is breaking down fast.
"If we left by truck we would have been there," says Alexey Andeev, coordinator for international aid efforts for the Russian Ministry of Civil Defense, expressing a common sentiment. The Russians sent a first team of 35 people by road Tuesday. The second team of 51 people remains stranded at Chaklala.
"We should say we are grateful to the Americans for the airlift support," adds Mr. Andeev. "We have helicopters but it takes time for them to come here. They [the Americans] were right next door."
Returning teams report that the roads are jamming with trucks carrying relief supplies into Kashmir and local cars taking the injured survivors out.
"Looting of relief goods from trucks has started in the area called Batgram," says Mohsin Baber, a relief worker. "These people are not having any type of aid since the last three days."
Col. James Yonts, spokesman for the US military effort, says there's nothing to do but wait. "We're here on the ramp waiting for Mother Nature to help us," he says. "First light these guys will be out of here."