Help pours in after Haiti’s capital is devastated by powerful earthquake

January 13th, 2010 - 4:02 pm ICT by BNO News  

PORT-AU-PRINCE (BNO NEWS) — Most of Haiti’s capital was destroyed in a powerful earthquake that struck just miles away from the city, killing an unknown number of people and creating a small tsunami that struck the coastline of the Dominican Republic, officials and witnesses said. Reports of catastrophic damage in Haiti are coming in, but there are no reports of damage from the Dominican Republic.

The earthquake happened around 4.53 p.m. local time and had a preliminary magnitude of 7.0, according to the United States Geological Survey, making it the strongest earthquake ever recorded within 200 kilometers. It struck about 10 miles southwest of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake is described as “major” and can cause serious damage over larger areas, especially in poor regions with poor construction of buildings. Because the earthquake had a depth of only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), there is a greater chance of severe damage.

Nearly 10 minutes later, at 5.01 p.m. local time, a second earthquake with a magnitude of 5.9 struck about 30 miles away from the epicenter of the first tremor. A spokeswoman for the United States Geological Survey said a second aftershock struck minutes later, at 5.12 p.m. local time, and had a preliminary magnitude of 5.5.

Hours after the earthquake, smaller aftershocks were still continuing. The United States Geological Survey reported a total of at least 32 aftershocks, several of those with a magnitude higher than 5.0. Shortly after midnight, at 12.03 a.m., a 5.7-magnitude aftershock struck about 44 miles from Haiti’s capital.

TSUNAMI WATCHES

There was no destructive widespread tsunami threat following the earthquake, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, who put the magnitude of the earthquake at a larger 7.1. However, tsunami watches were issued for Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. “Areas further from the epicenter could experience small sea level changes and strong or unusual coastal currents,” the center said in a bulletin.

The center later canceled the watches and confirmed a tsunami had been generated. “A tsunami measuring 12 cm crest-to-trough was recorded at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and a tsunami less than 1 cm crest-to-trough was recorded on a deep ocean gauge in the east-central Caribbean,” the tsunami warning center said. “Based on these data there could have been destructive tsunami waves near the earthquake epicenter,” it added. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties following the tsunami.

Although no official figures are available yet, it is clear that as many as thousands of people were killed in the tremor. “There is a very good chance of significant damage,” a spokeswoman for the United States Geological Survey earlier said. The agency said up to 4 million people may have experienced very strong shaking.

CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES

A worker at the Haiti office of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) described catastrophic damage. “I never felt anything like this before,” he said. The witness said the CRS building on Haiti was intact, but said a building across the street had completely collapsed.

“It was a major and direct hit,” the witness said, who said he was still shaking after the earthquake. He estimated thousands “must” have been killed. The Catholic Relief Services have been in Haiti for more than 50 years and is currently assessing how to respond, a spokeswoman said.

Sara Fajardo, a communications officer for the Catholic Relief Services, said the material to provide emergency relief to Haitians is mostly already in place. “We already have a food distribution program,” she said. Fajardo said, speaking on behalf of the regional technical advisor, that she was mostly concerned about security and transportation.

FOOD FOR THE POOR

Another witness, Rachmani Domersant, who is the project coordinator for Food for the Poor program, said many buildings had collapsed. “The situation here is total chaos and disaster right now,” Domersant said by telephone. “Restaurants have collapsed, supermarkets have collapsed, many houses have completely collapsed,” he said. Domersant said a major shopping center had also collapsed.

“Hundreds of people are trapped under buildings,” he said, while adding that some people are trying to find victims with flashlights. Domersant, who said most of the capital had been destroyed, estimated the death toll to be in the many thousands. “Hundreds is an understatement.”

Food for the Poor currently has a group of 12 college students and two faculty advisors in Haiti on a mission trip. The students attend Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. The students were dropped off at Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince around 4 p.m., about one hour before the earthquake. “We have learned there has been some damage to the hotel and are working to ascertain that the students, advisors and our staff are safe,” the organization said.

Food for the poor employees reported seeing a large number of homes collapsed in the capital. “There appear to be more homes down than standing in several areas of Port-au-Prince,” the organization said.

One Food for the Poor staffer reported seeing a five-story building collapse, while another employee saw a major bridge, the Croix de Mission, collapse as she drove home.

The employees also said a hospital had collapsed in Pétionville, a town in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Food for The Poor’s main office in Port-au-Prince had collapsed, while its feeding center and warehouse were apparently not damaged. “Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti who are watching this disaster unfold around them. This country seems to take a beating far too often,” said Robin Mahfood, President and CEO of Food For The Poor. “We have been monitoring the situation since it first happened, and we will take immediate steps to offer relief to those suffering from this earthquake.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said the embassy in Port-au-Prince, which was not damaged in the earthquake, was accounting for staff and has activated the U.S. Citizen Warden Network. “Our embassy is still in the early stages of contacting American citizens,” the department later said in a statement. “Communications are very difficult within Haiti at this time.”

The United States Geological Survey estimated about 383,000 people experienced extreme shaking. Another 365,000 experienced violent shaking, and more than 2.2 million people experienced severe shaking.

“We are still gathering information about this catastrophic earthquake, the point of impact, [and] its effect on the people of Haiti,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said from Honolulu. “The United States is offering our full assistance to Haiti and to others in the region.”

Clinton said the U.S. will now provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. “We will be providing both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance,” she said. “And our prayers are with the people who have suffered, their families, and their loved ones.”

USAID EMERGENCY RESPONSE

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said it is dispatching a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and has activated its partners, the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team.

The USAR teams will be composed of up to 72 personnel, 6 search and rescue canines and up to 48 tons of rescue equipment. USAID disaster experts will also assist with the assessments of the situation.

“This is a tragic situation and we will work alongside the Haitian government to provide immediate assistance in the rescue effort,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. “On behalf of the American people, I wish to convey our sympathy, thoughts and prayers to the people of Haiti who have been affected by this devastating earthquake. USAID said it will continue to provide additional support as needed.

AMERICAN RED CROSS

The American Red Cross immediately pledged an initial $200,000 to assist communities impacted by the earthquake, and said it is prepared to take further action as local responders assess the situation.

“Initial reports indicate widespread damage in Port au Prince, with continuing aftershocks,” said Tracy Reines, director of international disaster response for the American Red Cross. “As with most earthquakes, we expect to see immediate needs for food, water, temporary shelter, medical services and emotional support.”

The American Red Cross also made all of its relief supplies at a warehouse in Panama available, which would provide for basic needs of approximately 5,000 families. In addition, it is deploying a disaster management specialist to Haiti, and has additional disaster specialists on standby if needed.

All three American Red Cross staff members in Haiti have been reported safe. The Haitian Red Cross is expected to lead the global Red Cross response on the ground.

INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Haiti’s West Province is the worst hit area, and said Red Cross volunteers are currently assisting the injured and supporting hospitals which do not have enough capacity to deal with the disaster. “The most urgent needs at this time are search and rescue, field hospitals, emergency health, water purification, emergency shelter, logistics and telecommunications,” the organization said in a statement.

The Red Cross Red Crescent has pre-positioned relief supplies for 3,000 families in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince there are enough pre-positioned supplies for 500 families. These emergency supplies consist of kitchen kits, personal hygiene kits, blankets and containers for storing drinking water.

A group of experts in disaster response, health in emergency and logistics will arrive in Haiti later today to support the Haitian Red Cross in the relief efforts and to begin to coordinate international assistance from members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as other organizations. In addition, a Red Cross team will lead a damage assessment together with the Humanitarian Aid Office of the European Union.

Emergency funds have been released, the Red Cross said. “A preliminary emergency appeal for humanitarian aid should be issued later on Wednesday,” it added.

PRESIDENT OBAMA

President Obama was informed of the earthquake at 5.52 p.m. EDT, the White House said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake,” the president said in a brief statement. “We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti.”

Obama has asked his staff to make sure that U.S. embassy personnel is safe, and to begin preparations in the event that humanitarian assistance is needed. The U.S. State Department, USAID and the United States Southern Command have since begun working to coordinate an assessment and the needed assistance.

AMBASSADOR: THIS IS A MAJOR CATASTROPHE

Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, spoke of a great disaster in an interview to CNN. Joseph said President René Préval was not hurt in the earthquake, but said the presidential palace had been damaged. “Mr. Ambassador, tell the world: this is a major catastrophe,” a Haitian official asked Joseph.

FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON

Former U.S. President Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti, released a statement several hours after the earthquake. “My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti,” Clinton said.

“My U.N. office and the rest of the U.N. system are monitoring the situation, and we are committed to do whatever we can to assist the people of Haiti in their relief, rebuilding and recovery efforts,” he added.

U.N. BUILDINGS DESTROYED, EMPLOYEES MISSING

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his concern for the people of Haiti and U.N. staff who serve there. “My heart goes out to the people of Haiti after this devastating earthquake,” Ban said. “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.” Ban said he is receiving initial reports and is following the developments closely.

“The Secretary-General has been briefed on the latest developments in Haiti,” a U.N. spokesperson said. “He is shocked at the scale of devastation in Port-au-Prince.” The spokesperson said Ban is “anxiously” awaiting further news.

In Port-au-Prince, the Headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) sustained serious damage along with other U.N. installations. “For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy said.

“Contacts with the UN on the ground have been severely hampered as communications networks in Haiti have been disabled by the earthquake,” a U.N. statement read. Le Roy expressed his deep concern and said his department is still in the process of gathering information on the extent of the damage and the status of UN personnel.

FRENCH CITIZENS MISSING

French President Nicolas Sarkozy learned “with horror and deep emotion” of the news, his office said in a statement. “He expressed his deep solidarity with the authorities and people of Haiti, as well as the U.N. personnel severely affected by the earthquake,” according to his office said. “The urgency now is to rescue the victims, people trapped under the rubble, wounded and missing.”

In response to the earthquake, Sarkozy ordered to urgently dispatch rescue teams to participate in rescue operations for local people and help locate missing French citizens. His office did not specify how many French citizens were missing.

Sarkozy’s office said French authorities, despite communication difficulties, are working closely with Haitian authorities, the United Nations, and other countries involved.

WORLD BANK OFFICES DAMAGED

The offices of the World Bank in Port-au-Prince were also damaged in the earthquake, although the extend of the damage was not immediately clear, according to Tomoko Hirai, a spokeswoman for the Tokyo office of the World Bank. Hirai said none of its staff were reported injured.

NO DAMAGE ON JAMAICA

On Jamaica, small tremors were felt, said Gregory, a person who picked up the phone at the Hilton Kingston Hotel. “I’m not aware of any damage,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management said she was not aware of damage. “A number of Caribbean islands have felt the earthquake,” she said.

U.S. HELPLINE FOR AMERICANS

The U.S. State Department Operations Center also activated a help line for Americans seeking information about family members. Those who want information about relatives there may call 1-888-407-4747. Due to heavy volume, some callers may receive a recording.

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