Haiti’s strongest earthquake in more than two centuries rocked the Caribbean nation on Tuesday, causing dozens of buildings to collapse and raising fears that many people have died, officials and witnesses said.
Witnesses reported seeing dead bodies lying on the street and hearing cries for help in the impoverished and crowded capital of Port-au-Prince, located just 10 miles northwest of the earthquake’s epicenter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I saw dead bodies, people are screaming, they are on the street panicking, people are hurt,” Raphaelle Chenet, the administrator of Mercy and Sharing, a charity that takes care of 109 orphans, said in a telephone interview from the capital. “There are a lot of wounded, broken heads, broken arms.”
A hospital in Port-au-Prince collapsed, along with dozens of other buildings, including one building in the presidential compound and one other government ministry building, according to Alice Blanchet, a special adviser to the Haitian government. Other landmark buildings in the capital, including the U.N. headquarters and the Hotel Montana, sustained heavy damage, witnesses said.
Ms. Blanchet, who had been in contact with several Haitian government officials, said the building that collapsed in the presidential compound was not the main presidential palace.
“I think the only good news was that it hit late and many of the people who would have been working in the buildings were on the street or at home,” she said.
The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations said U.N. headquarters in the capital “sustained serious damage.”
“For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for,” the U.N. said in a statement Tuesday.
“At this time of tragedy, I am very concerned for the people of Haiti and also for the many United Nations staff who serve there,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
In Port-au-Prince, many houses built on steep ravines collapsed, Ms. Chenet and other witnesses said. Ms. Chenet said she heard a few explosions, which she believed to be gas explosions. The orphans in the two institutions run by Mercy and Sharing weren’t hurt, she said.
President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with the people of Haiti, and U.S. officials said they would consider immediate humanitarian aid.
“Clearly, there’s going to be serious loss of life in this,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley told reporters.
At least 1.8 million people live within the area where the magnitude-7 quake was most intense, John Bellini, a geophysicist at the USGS, told The Wall Street Journal. “With a strong and shallow earthquake like this in such a populated area, it could really cause substantial damage,” he said.
Nightfall and the chaos after the quake made it too early to estimate the extent of the casualties. Disaster specialists said various mathematical models for an earthquake of such magnitude in Haiti predict that as many as 4,000 people could have been killed.
The Greek Ambassador to Venezuela, Efstathios Daras, who is also representing Greece in Haiti said: “We fear major loss of life, maybe in the thousands or tens of thousands.” He described reports of victims trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
“Survivors are using their hands to help get trapped people out. There are fears of big aftershocks which could make the situation even worse. There is huge damage to the infrastructure. We can’t get through anymore. All phone lines are down.”
Francis Ghesquiere, lead disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank, said the toll would be exacerbated by the lack of zoning, building codes, and emergency preparedness in a country with a notoriously weak central government. Immediate recovery efforts could be hampered by the same issues until foreign assistance arrives.
Security problems could also arise if victims and others, seeking to take advantage of the chaos, resort to looting in the scramble for supplies. Such events have followed previous disasters in Haiti and now, despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force, “the security situation could be a big problem,” warned Mr. Ghesquiere.
The quake was the most powerful to hit Haiti since at least 1770, according to USGS records, Mr. Bellini said. “This isn’t normally an earthquake-prone place,” he said.
The quake was reportedly felt as far away as Venezuela.
Latin America is no stranger to deadly earthquakes. In 1972, a 6.2-magnitude quake hit Managua, Nicaragua, killing between 3,000 and 7,000 people. In 1976, Guatemala was racked by a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that killed 23,000. And in 1985, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake battered Mexico City, killing at least 10,000 and perhaps many thousands more.
On Tuesday, within minutes of the original tremor, two aftershocks rolled through the area, with magnitudes of 5.9 and 5.5.
The country has also been shaken by political instability. In 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a fiery former Catholic priest, was overthrown by a rebellion of former soldiers and flown into exile in South Africa.
In 2008, the country was shaken as thousands took to the streets to protest the high prices of food. Eight in ten Haitians live in poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook.
An 11,000-strong force of U.N. peacekeepers, led by elements of the Brazilian army, have been in Haiti since Mr. Aristide’s overthrow to help maintain law and order. Aside from natural disasters, the island, which is on an important drug smuggling route from South America, has had to deal with the violence and corruption engendered by drug trafficking.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said: “This is the worst possible time for a natural disaster in Haiti, a country which is still recovering from the devastating storms of just over a year ago.”
The American Red Cross said it will send $500,000 in emergency funding, and dispatch local responders to assess the situation. “As with most earthquakes, we expect to see immediate needs for food, water, temporary shelter, medical services and emotional support,” the organization said Tuesday evening.
Americans with roots in the country issued pleas for help. “If you have any heart at all…please…get up and do something. Make a donation,” said Jozy Altidore, a member of the U.S. national soccer team whose parents were both born in Haiti, in a Twitter feed.
Haiti has had a turbulent history alternating between dictatorship, civil war and coups since black slaves defeated Napoleonic troops to declare its independence in 1804, becoming the world’s first black republic.
The country was largely isolated during the 19th century by European powers that didn’t want to encourage other slave rebellions. Beset by chaos and civil war, Haiti was occupied by the U.S., which sent Marines to run the country from 1915 to 1934. From 1957 to 1986, the island was ruled first by dictator François Duvalier who was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc,” who was overthrown in 1986.