7.0 Earthquake hits the Poorest Region in the Western Hemisphere

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake which hit the south of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince is feared to have killed thousands of people across the Caribbean county. The quake, Haiti’s worst in two centuries, struck south of the capital on Tuesday at 1653 local time (4:53 p.m.) The cost of the damage could be in the billions of dollars and the death toll could escalate past 4,000. More than 30 significant aftershocks as powerful as 5.9 rattled the city throughout the night and into Wednesday.

Phone and power lines to the country failed shortly after the earthquake, making it difficult to receive information about those whose lives were lost. Tens of thousands of people had lost their homes, as buildings that were flimsy and dangerous under normal conditions collapsed. The main prison and cathedral collapsed. There were some reports of looting overnight, as the city was in total blackness. People were lifting sheets on bodies to try to identify loved ones. Reports on Twitter message site expressed the chaos in the wake of the quake.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, a tsunami watch was put out for Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, but this was later lifted. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the capital had been “devastated” (BBC) by the quake, although other areas were largely unaffected. Haiti shares the island of Hispanida with the Dominican Republic. Buildings shook in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, during the quake, but no major damage was reported there. The earthquake could be felt strongly in eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles (321 kilometres) away.

The quake ripped apart buildings, shearing huge slabs of concrete off structures. First rescuers on the scene were often local people trying to help dig people out of the rubble by hand or to comfort injured survivors. Carel Pedre, a local resident, said that people thought it was the end of the world: “I heard a lot of people praying saying that Jesus is coming, saying that we need to pray, we need to save our lives by believing in God,” Pedre told CNN. Many people slept outside on the ground, away from weakened walls, as the aftershocks rattled the city throughout the night and into Wednesday. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares to sing hymns. “Everybody is just totally freaked out and shaken,” said Henry Bahn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Port au Prince. “The sky is just grey with dust.” (The Toronto Star)

The earthquake damaged buildings as grand as the National Palace, pancaking scores of structures and trapping people inside those buildings. “Parliament has collapsed,” Haitian president René Préval told reporters. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed.” (New York Times) The main hospitals in Port au Prince had either collapsed or been abandoned because they were too structurally precarious. A wall at the front of the Hotel Oloffson had fallen, killing a passer-by. A Unibank building was badly damaged. The presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls. Préval and his wife were not inside when the quake hit.

The main road connecting the airport to Port au Prince remained impassible, though the airport was open to aid and relief flights. Other roads had been torn apart in the quake or were blocked by debris, making it more difficult to transport food, fresh water, and first aid supplies. Hospitals were overwhlemed by the injured.

Stressing a major international relief effort would be needed. UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said the UN would immediately release $10 million from its emergency response fund. The airport in Port au Prince and a UN logistical base are operational, the UN said, allowing aid to start arriving. The Red Cross is dispatching a relief team from Geneva and the UN’s World Food Programme is flying in two planes with emergency food aid, including 87 metric tons of high-energy biscuits. Countries around the world are mobilizing their aid response teams. The emphasis for aid workers is on looking for survivors while searchers continue to look for people buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings. In the aftermath, the Canadian Red Cross building was turned into a temporary hospital where more than 250 people were tended to in short order. U.S. ships and disaster-relief teams prepared to deploy to the Caribbean nation, as a range of governments, including the UK, France and China, pledged relief. UN workers readied supply planes, and the International Red Cross mobilized emergency stocks kept in the region.

None of the three aid centres run by Doctors without Borders in Haiti is operable following the earthquake, the group said Wednesday. The group moved patients at its clinics to temporary tent shelters. Aid workers and journalists in the Dominican Republic swarmed the airport in Santo Domingo, hoping to catch a few emergency flights to Haiti.

Jordan, Brazil and China have all reported deaths in the earthquake. The Red Cross say that up to three million people have been affected. China has already indicated in reports in state media that eight of its peacekeepers are dead, with another 10 unaccounted for. The AFP news agency quoted the Jordanian army saying that three of its peacekeepers had been killed and 21 wounded. The Brazilian army said eleven of its peacekeepers had been killed and a large number were missing. A French official told the AFP that about 200 people were missing in the collapsed Hotel Montana, which is popular with tourists. No Canadian casualties have been confirmed. Three Canadian police officers remain unaccounted for. The Argentine military confirmed the death of a U.N. peacekeeper from their country. Taiwan said its embassy was destroyed and the ambassador hospitalized. Spain said its embassy was badly damaged. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Port au Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found dead in the ruins of his office.

The United Nations said at least five members of its peacekeeping mission in Haiti are dead after the mission headquarters in Port au Prince collapsed in Tuesday’s earthquake, and over 100 are missing. UN troops, mostly from Brazil, were trying to rescue people from the five-storey building, UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters. Le Roy said fewer than 10 people have been pulled from the rubble, and five were reported dead. Between 200 and 250 people normally work at the peacekeeping headquarters, though only about half were in the building at the time of the quake. A few people have been rescued from the building, but they are badly injured. UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon said the head of the UN mission in Haiti is among the missing.

About 4 million people live in Port au Prince and the surrounding area. Most Haitians are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. With people cutting down trees for fuel and to clear land for agriculture, the mountainous countryside has been heavily devastated. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called this the strongest earthquake since 1770.

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