Haitian streets ‘lined with bodies’
Streets in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince were lined with bodies of the dead, injured and those seeking refuge from crippled buildings in the wake of a massive earthquake.
A powerful earthquake struck Haiti’s capital on Tuesday with withering force, toppling everything from simple shacks to the ornate National Palace and the headquarters of UN peacekeepers.
The dead and injured lay in the streets even as strong aftershocks rippled through the impoverished Caribbean country.
Most powerful quake in centuries
Associated Press journalists based in Port-au-Prince said the damage from the quake – the most powerful to hit Haiti in more than 200 years – is staggering even in a country accustomed to tragedy and disaster.
Women covered in dust crawled from the rubble wailing as others wandered through the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares late into the night, singing hymns. Many gravely injured people still sat in the streets early on Wednesday, pleading for doctors.
With almost no emergency services to speak of, the survivors had few other options.
Thousands of buildings were damaged and destroyed throughout the city, and for hours after the quake the air was filled with a choking dust from the debris of fallen buildings.
Thousands made homeless
The scope of the disaster remained unclear, and even a rough estimate of the number of casualties was impossible. But it was clear from a tour of the capital that tens of thousands of people had lost their homes and that many had perished. Many buildings in Haiti are flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions.
“The hospitals cannot handle all these victims,” said Louis-Gerard Gilles, a doctor and former senator, as he helped survivors. “Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together.”
An Associated Press videographer saw a wrecked hospital where people screamed for help in Petionville, a hillside Port-au-Prince district that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians as well as many poor people.
At a collapsed four-storey apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car, trying to peer inside as several men pulled at a foot sticking out in an attempt to extricate the body. She said her family was inside.
UN peacekeepers, most of whom are from Brazil, were trying to rescue survivors from their collapsed five-storey headquarters, but UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said late on Tuesday that “as we speak no one has been rescued”.
UN personnel missing
“We know there will be casualties but we cannot give figures for the time being,” he said.
Many UN personnel were missing, he said, including mission chief Hedi Annabi, who was in the building when the quake struck. Some 9,000 peacekeepers have been in Haiti since a 2004 rebellion ousted the president.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said its embassy was destroyed and the ambassador hospitalised for undisclosed injuries.
The National Palace crumbled into itself, but Haiti’s ambassador to Mexico Robert Manuel said President Rene Preval and his wife survived the earthquake. He had no details.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck at 4.53pm on Tuesday, centred 15km west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of 8km, the US Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti.
In 1946, a magnitude-8.1 quake struck the Dominican Republic and also shook Haiti, producing a tsunami that killed 1,790 people.
The temblor appeared to have occurred along a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, said earthquake expert Tom Jordan at the University of Southern California.
Damage, structural damage
The quake’s size and proximity to populated Port-au-Prince likely caused widespread casualties and structural damage, he said.
“It’s going to be a real killer,” he said. “Whenever something like this happens, you just hope for the best.”
Most of Haiti’s 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 per cent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances.
Tuesday’s quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, and some panicked residents in the capital of Santo Domingo fled from their shaking homes. But no major damage was reported there. In eastern Cuba, houses shook but there were also no reports of significant damage.
The damage in Haiti was clearly vast.
State Department spokesman P J Crowley said in Washington that US Embassy personnel were “literally in the dark” after power failed.
‘Bodies in the streets’
“They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there’s going to be serious loss of life in this,” he said.
The Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, said at least two Americans working at its Haitian aid mission were believed trapped in rubble.
The United States was sending disaster rescue teams and President Barack Obama said the US stood ready to help Haiti.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said from Honolulu that the US was offering full assistance – civilian and military.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said his government planned to send a military aircraft carrying canned foods, medicine and drinking water and also would dispatch a team of 50 rescue workers.
Mexico, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, was sending a team including doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts, said Salvador Beltran, the undersecretary of foreign relations for Latin America and the Caribbean.