The death toll from a powerful midnight earthquake that struck western Nepal climbed to more than 150 people on Saturday, as the authorities and aid organizations rushed to provide relief for thousands of families stranded under the open sky and fearful of aftershocks.
Rescuers worked through the day to push through roads blocked by landslides and debris to reach the mountainous villages of Karnali Province where the earthquake struck. Officials cautioned that the death toll was likely to rise as communication was restored with areas that had been cut off.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported the magnitude as 5.6. Nepal’s National Earthquake Monitoring and Research Center reported the magnitude at 6.4, with several small aftershocks spread over the following hours. It is not uncommon for estimates of an earthquake’s magnitude to differ or for them to be subsequently revised.
The earthquake hit near midnight, when people were sleeping. Tremors were also felt in India’s capital, New Delhi, hundreds of miles west.
After the initial quake, families in villages spent much of the night out under the open sky, fearing aftershocks. With about 5,000 houses destroyed or damaged, according to initial estimates made by disaster management authorities, entire villages prepared for another night outside.
“There was not a single house standing tall. Every house was damaged. Only dirt flying under the sky,” said Tapendra Rokaya, 29, who was visiting family in a village in the Jajarkot district for a Hindu festival. “No one is staying indoors due to fears of aftershocks. Everyone is either under a tent or open in the sky.”
In the Jajarkot district — the epicenter of the earthquake, about 310 miles west of Kathmandu, the capital — the death toll stood at 105, with 500 others injured, according to Harishchandra Sharma, a senior officer in the local administration there. He said thousands of homes in the district had been damaged. Video footage on social media showed houses turned into piles of brick, with roofs collapsed.
In another quake-affected district, Rukum West, officials confirmed 52 deaths, with more than 300 people injured.
In both districts, officials and residents said a lot of the damage happened in areas where homes were built into the slopes.
Bhim Khatri-Chhetri, a development official in Jajarkot, said the hospital there was so overwhelmed that people were being treated on the balcony and in the hallways. Helicopters were working to airlift the injured to hospitals in nearby districts.
“I didn’t think I would survive last night — I feel lucky,” Mr. Khatri-Chhetri said. “We spent the night in the open.”
Nepal’s prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said in a statement from his office he had instructed the army and national police forces to mobilize for rescue and relief operations.
Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the United Nations resident coordinator for Nepal, said humanitarian organizations were “mobilizing relief support” from stockpiles from other parts of the country to help the affected districts.
Earthquakes are common in mountainous Nepal, which sits on a fault line of two major tectonic plates. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake in 2015 killed some 9,000 people and damaged about one million structures. Its economic impact, in one of South Asia’s poorest countries, was estimated in billions of dollars.
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.