KATHMANDU, Nepal — Dozens of international health-care professionals and emergency medical aid workers crammed into a small coordination office in Kathmandu on Wednesday looking for direction on how to assist in relief efforts after last weekend’s devastating earthquake.
“Nepal needs tents, as quickly as possible,” Padam Bahadur Chand, a senior health official, told them at the meeting.
As Chand made the appeal, however, the cargo site at the airport in the Nepali capital illustrated the bigger problem on the ground: a cripplingly slow response by the government.
Piles of tents that China sent have been lying at the airport since Monday, soldiers stationed there said. The tents were unloaded from the plane only Wednesday. Worse still, no one at the site knew when they would be sent to the far-flung villages where the temblor displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
“There are not enough trucks to take them out of here,” one cargo attendant said. “Things have been moving slowly here.”
Nearly five days after the quake shook this Himalayan nation, killing at least 5,027 people, international workers are getting restless. Many of them are stuck in Kathmandu, even as urgent help is required in remote villages yet to be reached.
Aid workers said many of their cargo planes are still awaiting permission to fly to Kathmandu’s beleaguered airport. The planes that have landed are waiting for their cargo to be unloaded. In many instances, the aid teams are not promptly told where to go or whom to work with.
At the coordination meeting Wednesday, nearly every question the international aid workers asked was met with a stock reply by Chand that went something like this: “The information will be shared with you soon.”
A doctor with a German aid agency, who has been in Nepal for two days but has not been given any task, expressed frustration. “We need to be told where to go, what is needed, what to carry and if the road to that place is in good condition. We need specific information, and time is running out,” said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the news media.
“Yesterday we were told by officials that there are sufficient doctors, but medicines are needed. But this morning, I read in the local newspapers that there is a shortage of doctors. It makes me think, ‘Are we even needed here?’ ”
One health worker at the meeting inquired about where to send the tents. Chand said: “Please send them to the local district-level medical teams. We will give you information about the teams soon.”
Hundreds of people displaced by the earthquake in the distant town of Charikot, about 80 miles east of Kathmandu, protested at the local government office, breaking tables and chairs in anger because relief supplies had not reached them, according to media reports.
“There is a complete absence of accountability in the government. The army is doing all the coordination, but they lack the political direction,” said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the Annapurna Post newspaper. “It shows the indifference among our politicians in this time of crisis and misery.”
Some international aid workers also said that Indian military planes have occupied too much of the tiny Kathmandu airstrip, delaying others.
Meanwhile, President Obama spoke with Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala on Wednesday and assured him that the United States will do all it can to help the people of Nepal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
At the Kathmandu meeting, Chand’s team made a presentation that contained a Google map with images of affected areas, as well as population data from a 2011 census. The team also promised that the government would set up a Web site on Thursday that would give updated information helpful to the aid agencies.
But a local public health worker said the government’s delay in providing direction and information is impeding urgent relief efforts in remote districts.
“All these groups have come to Nepal to help,” Lakshmi Tamang said after the meeting. “Delay is waste of their money and waste of their time.”
Anxiety is mounting in the capital, where thousands of residents lined up for miles on the city’s streets early Wednesday after an announcement that buses would be available for free to ferry them out of Kathmandu.
“There are no jobs here in this city now. Everything has shut down. We just want to get out now and go back to our villages,” said Hari Aryal, a 32-year-old restaurant cook. “The owner of the restaurant says he does not know when he will open it again. And we are scared that there may be a health epidemic soon in Kathmandu because there are so many dead bodies and so many people living so close to each other in tents. There is no proper waste management, either.”
About 170 buses packed with desperate people left the capital on Wednesday.
The government issued a health warning Tuesday and urged people to be careful of water-borne diseases arising from poor sanitation.
Some said the government is constrained by the sheer lack of information from the remote districts. Cellphone connectivity in rural areas was restored fully only late Monday. Others said inadequate coordination with international aid agencies is not unusual during natural disasters.
“We need you to be self-sufficient and not be a burden on the Nepalese administration,” Ian Norton, who supervised coordination efforts on behalf of the World Health Organization, told the aid groups Wednesday.
A U.S. team of nine doctors and paramedics, as well as rescue dogs, did just that. When the volunteers did not get any specific tasks from the Nepali government, they listened to local residents instead.
“You get very good information from local people on places to search much before the government officials tell you,” said Andrew Lustig, founder of Santa Fe-based Global Outreach Doctors. The group has been flooded with e-mails in the past week from American doctors who want to work in Nepal, he said.
The jet-lagged team took its three rescue dogs into the uninspected rubble of the nearby temple town of Bhaktapur. “It’s not complicated. All we need are three dogs and raincoats to go out on a search-and-rescue mission,” Lustig said. The doctors, however, have to continue waiting for the government’s instructions.
In Bhaktapur, residents watched a rescue dog named Jac sniff around in the rain-drenched wreckage for a missing woman.
After a few hours, two bodies were found under the rubble.
Pradeep Bashyal contributed to this report.