By Marc Pitzke in New York
The first eyewitness reports were confused and sporadic but they already gave a sense that this is a major disaster. "The sky is just gray with dust," Henry Bahn, a US Department of Agriculture official who is in Haiti, told the Associated Press. "Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken."
Gradually the nightmare that befell the poorest country in the western hemisphere late on Tuesday afternoon became evident. Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States who managed to briefly contact the office of the Haitian president, told CNN that Haiti had suffered a "catastrophe of major proportions."
The US Geological Survey said on its Web site that a magnitude 7.0 earthquake had struck in the Haiti region at 4:53 p.m. local time (10:52 p.m. CET) and that it was the worst quake to hit the area since 1770. The epicenter was around 15 kilometers west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and just 10 kilometers below ground, from where the tremors raced unhindered to the surface.
There were more than a dozen aftershocks, and experts said there could be further tremors in the coming days, putting the population at continued risk. For two hours after the quake there was an official tsunami warning for parts of the Caribbean.
"There Must be Thousands of People Dead"
It's still virtually impossible to get an exact picture of the situation. The power supply collapsed as did the telephone system. The only connection to the outside world is via the Internet. American TV networks interviewed survivors via Webcams and Skype.
As night descended on the destroyed capital city there still weren't any reliable figures for the number of victims. News agencies said hundreds of people are believed to have died in Port-au-Prince alone. "It is impossible to say how many deaths there have been, but the damage is tremendous," the Haiti Press Network (HPN) reported.
"Many buildings have collapsed including hospitals, schools and a big supermarket," a spokesman for the charity Humanitarian Aid Germany said. The spokesman added that hundreds were likely to have been killed. Eyewitnesses said the number of deaths could be far greater than early reports suggest.
Karel Zelenka, ther head of the aid group Catholic Relief Services in Port-au-Prince, said that "there must be thousands of people dead," a spokeswoman for the aid group told the Associated Press.
"People were screaming 'Jesus, Jesus' and running in all directions," said Reuters reporter Joseph Guyler Delva from Port-au-Prince. "It's total chaos."
Michael Bazile, a Haitian in Port-au-Prince, told CNN: "Many houses are down. We really don't know what's going on and every 30 minutes we feel (tremors) again. Everybody is yelling, they are praying, they are crying. We are worried because we think it's not over. I pray it's over but we don't know.
Zelenka told the Washington Post that many buildings in his district had collapsed. "This will be a major, major disaster," he said. Zelenka said that poorly constructed shantytowns and other buildings had crumbled in huge clouds of dust. Among the worst-hit areas was the run-down Carrefour district of Port-au-Prince near the sea.
Video footage broadcast on CNN and reported to have been recorded immediately after the quake showed dense, heavy dust clouds hanging over Port-au-Prince. Some 2 million people live squashed together in this impoverished, overpopulated city -- many live in huts, poorly constructed houses or in slums without electricity or a working infrastructure.
The first photos that reached the outside world via the social networks Facebook and Twitter showed collapsed walls, buried cars, human corpses and crying survivors waving helplessly, their faces covered in white dust. Haiti's capital is surrounded by hills which had been subjected to deforestation for years, and had therefore been prone to landslides even before the earthquake.
"This is an area that is particularly vulnerable in terms of construction practice, and with a high population density. There could be a high number of casualties," David Wald, a Geological Survey seismologist, told the New York Times.
President Rene Preval's chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, reported that "buildings were crumbling right and left" near the National Palace. Even the palace failed to withstand the quake. Photos showed its collapsed facades and cupola. "Those are very robust buildings," said Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the US. "If they're damaged, one can only imagine what has happened to the shaky little houses in the hills around Port-au-Prince."
President Preval and First Lady Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour survived the disaster and weren't hurt, the ambassador said. They are reported to have been in their own house and not in the palace when the quake struck.
UN Workers Missing
According to reports, a university, parliamentary offices, at least one government ministry, the city's cathedral and the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force on the edge of the city were hard hit. "For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for," UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Alain Le Roy said in New York. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was set up in 2004 and there are currently 9,000 military and police as well as close to 2,000 civilian staff.
A hospital and a five-story apartment building also collapsed, burying many. A worker for the aid organization Food for the Poor said that on one main street, there were more buildings destroyed than left standing. US government official Bahn says he saw numerous collapsed buildings in a canyon and that all one could do is pray.
Richard Morse, a well known-musician and the owner of the famous Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, kept people up to date via his Twitter feed. "Just about all the lights are out in Port au Prince," he wrote. "People are still screaming but the noise is dying as darkness sets. Lots of rumors about which buildings are toppled. The Castel Haiti behind the Oloffson is a pile of rubble. It was eight stories high."
US photographer Teuila Minsky who was also staying in the Oloffson, told the New York Times that a wall at the front of the Hotel Oloffson had fallen, killing a passer-by, and that several neighboring buildings had collapsed.
There are conflicting reports on conditions at the international airport at Port-au-Prince. An eyewitness told CNN that the runway was still open and that a plane even managed to take off after the earthquake.
According to a report in the Palm Beach Post, the last plane to depart was an American Airlines flight. Passengers reportedly panicked after the earthquake hit the airport. "It felt like a plane had hit the building, that's how strong it was," passenger Jocelyn Valcin told the newspaper after landing in Miami. "The airport itself was badly damaged, cracked." When the flight took off, he added, he could see "buildings that fell down."
American Airlines then cancelled all further flights to and from Haiti. Port-au-Prince is currently only reachable by land, via the neighboring Dominican Republic and mountains.
Relief Efforts Begin
For years, seismologists have been warning of the possibility of a major earthquake in Haiti. The Caribbean island nation is located directly in a geological fault zone. But plagued as it is with civil wars, poor governance and poverty, the country has had other problems to deal with. The country has also been afflicted with frequent hurricanes like the "Jeanne" catastrophe in 2004 that claimed 3,000 lives. But Haiti has also had trouble dealing with even relatively minor storms and has become highly reliant on international relief aid.
External aid is expected to come quickly this time. US President Barack Obama was informed of the earthquake within an hour and called together a staff meeting to start preparations for humanitarian aid. "My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake," Obama said. "We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would provide "both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance." Her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, told journalists in Washington on Tuesday night that the US Embassy was having trouble reaching Americans living in Port-au-Prince as well as officials with the Haitian government. " Crowley said the devastation was considerable and "there's going to be a serious loss of life."
The American Red Cross provided a first aid payment of $200,000. "We do have staff on the ground," Red Cross spokesperson Abbi Weaver said on Tuesday night, "but we have not been able to reach them."
France Sends Aid Planes
On Wednesday, France is dispatching two planes with relief goods and around 60 rescue workers to Haiti. One will depart from Marseille and the other from Fort de France in Martinique. Around 1,400 French citizens live in Haiti, including 1,200 in the capital city, French Development Minister Alain Joyandet told the radio station Europe 1.
The Haitian ambassador in Berlin, Jean Robert Saget, asked for swift aid from Germany after the earthquake. He told the German news agency DPA that medical aid, tents and food were needed. "Any help is welcome at the moment."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday that his country had pledged aid to Haiti and called together a crisis management team to deal with the disaster. Westerwelle said the Foreign Ministry was seeking information on German nationals in Haiti and ways to provide relief to the catastrophe-stricken country. "Our sympathy and our entire solidarity is there for the victims of the catastrophe and their families," he said. He ensured that Germany would provide Haiti with any aid possible.
The earthquake could also be felt in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which like Haiti is part of the island of Hispaniola. The tremor could also be felt as far away as Cuba, some 800 kilometers away. "We felt it very strongly and I would say for a long time," Monsignor Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago, told the Associated Press.
On Tuesday evening, countless Haitian families waited in Miami in the hopes that friends and relatives would soon arrive from Port-au-Prince. But for now, there have been no flights. The last thing 43-year-old Odiana Medacier heard from an acquaintance, was a mobile phone message just after the quake, according to the Palm Beach Post: "Earthquake, 7.0. Pray for Haiti."
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