High toll feared in Haiti quake
Capital battered; many homeless
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The most powerful earthquake in Haiti’s history devastated much of its capital yesterday, destroying part of the National Palace, leveling shantytowns, and littering the streets with bodies and rubble.
Calling the damage widespread and catastrophic, officials said it would be days before they could tally the dead and determine the extent of the devastation. Tens of thousands of people are homeless.
Communication to much of the island nation was severed.
Gravely injured people sat in the street, pleading for doctors long into the night. With almost no emergency services, they had few options. In public squares, thousands of people held hands, weeping and singing hymns.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck at 4:53 p.m.
United Nations officials said they could not account for a large number of UN personnel.
Karel Zelenka, a Catholic Relief Services representative in Port-au-Prince, told US colleagues before phone service failed that “there must be thousands of people dead,’’ according to a spokeswoman for the aid group, Sara Fajardo.
“He reported that it was just total disaster and chaos, that there were clouds of dust surrounding Port-au-Prince,’’ Fajardo said from the group’s offices in Maryland.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington that US Embassy personnel were “literally in the dark’’ after power failed.
“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, Conn., said at least two Americans working at its Haitian aid mission were believed to be trapped in rubble.
Alain Le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief in New York, said late last night that the headquarters of the 9,000-member Haiti peacekeeping mission and other UN installations were seriously damaged.
Felix Augustin, Haiti’s consul general in New York, said a portion of the National Palace had disintegrated.
“Buildings collapsed all over the place,’’ he said. “We have lives that are destroyed. . . . It will take at least two or three days for people to know what’s going on.’’
An Associated Press videographer saw a hospital in ruins in Petionville, a hillside Port-au-Prince district that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians, as well as many poor people. Elsewhere in the capital, a US government official reported seeing houses that had tumbled into a ravine.
Kenson Calixte of Boston spoke to an uncle and cousin in Port-au-Prince shortly after the earthquake by phone. He could hear screaming in the background as his relatives described the frantic scene in the streets. His uncle told him that a small hotel near their home had collapsed, with people inside.
“They told me it was total chaos, a lot of devastation,’’ he said.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, said from his Washington office that he spoke to President Rene Preval’s chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, just after the quake hit. He said Longchamp told him that “buildings were crumbling right and left’’ near the National Palace. The envoy said he had not been able to get back in contact with officials.
With phones down, some of the only communication came from social media such as Twitter. Richard Morse, a noted musician who manages the famed Olafson Hotel, kept up a stream of dispatches on the aftershocks and damage reports. The news, based mostly on second-hand reports and photos, was disturbing, with people screaming in fear and roads blocked with debris. Belair, a slum even in the best of times, was said to be “a broken mess.’’
The earthquake was centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of 5 miles, 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. 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.
Most of Haiti’s 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe.