The death toll from a powerful 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Haiti climbed sharply on Sunday, as rescuers raced to find survivors amid the rubble ahead of a potential deluge from an approaching tropical storm.
Saturday’s earthquake left at least 724 people dead and 2,800 injured in the Caribbean island nation, with thousands more displaced from their destroyed or damaged homes.
Survivors in some areas were forced to shelter in streets or soccer fields with the few belongings they were able to salvage from their homes.
The devastation could soon worsen with the coming of tropical storm Grace, which was predicted to reach Haiti late Monday or early Tuesday, bringing the potential for torrential rain, flooding and landslides.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast 10 to 20 centimetres of rain in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with up to 38 centimetres in some southern parts of the island of Hispaniola that they share.
Here are the 11 AM AST Sunday, August 15 Key Messages for Tropical Storm <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Grace?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Grace</a>. Flooding is possible over the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti over the next few days.<a href=”https://t.co/zcPGK93qRF”>https://t.co/zcPGK93qRF</a> <a href=”https://t.co/nCIx4QbFxk”>pic.twitter.com/nCIx4QbFxk</a>
The earthquake struck the southwestern part of the hemisphere’s poorest nation, almost razing some towns and triggering landslides that hampered rescue efforts in two of the hardest-hit communities.
The disaster added to the plight of Haitians, who were already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential assassination and a wave of gang violence.
The epicentre of the quake was about 125 kilometres west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Residents rattled by aftershocks
Aftershocks continued jolting the area on Sunday. Overnight, many people, now homeless or frightened by the possibility of their fractured homes collapsing on them, stayed in the streets to sleep — if their nerves allowed.
In the badly damaged coastal town of Les Cayes, some families salvaged their few belongings and spent the night at an open-air football pitch. On Sunday morning, people lined up to buy what little was available: bananas, avocados and water at a local street market.
Some in the town praised God that they survived the earthquake, and many went to the city’s cathedral, which appeared outwardly undamaged even if the priests’ residence was destroyed.
“We only have Jesus now,” said Johanne Dorcely, 58, whose house was destroyed. “If it wasn’t for Jesus, I wouldn’t be able to be here today.”
Prime Minister Ariel Henry declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country and said he was rushing aid to areas where towns were destroyed and hospitals overwhelmed with patients. A former senator rented a private airplane to move injured people from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince for medical assistance.
“The most important thing is to recover as many survivors as possible under the rubble,” he said. “We have learned that the local hospitals, in particular that of Les Cayes, are overwhelmed with wounded, fractured people.”
Rescue workers and bystanders were able to pull many people to safety from the rubble.
Hundreds of homes destroyed
Jerry Chandler, director of Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, said a partial survey of structural damage found at least 860 destroyed homes and more than 700 damaged. Hospitals, schools, offices and churches were also affected.
On the tiny island of Île-à-Vache, about 10.5 kilometres from Les Cayes, the quake damaged a seaside resort popular with Haitian officials, business leaders, diplomats and humanitarian workers. Fernand Sajous, owner of the Abaka Bay Resort, said by telephone that nine of the hotel’s 30 rooms collapsed but that they were vacant at the time and no one was injured.
“They disappeared — just like that,” Sajous said.
People in Les Cayes tried to pull guests from the rubble of a collapsed hotel, but as the sun set, they had only been able to recover the body of a seven-year-old girl whose home was behind the facility.
“I have eight kids, and I was looking for the last one,” Jean-Claude Daniel said through tears. “I will never see her again alive. The earthquake destroyed my life. It took a child away from me.”
The reports of overwhelmed hospitals come as Haiti struggles with the pandemic and a lack of resources to deal with it. The country of 11 million people received its first batch of U.S.-donated coronavirus vaccines only last month via a United Nations program for low-income countries.
The earthquake also struck just over a month after President Jovenel Moïse was shot to death in his home, sending the country into political chaos. His widow, Martine Moïse, who was seriously wounded in the attack, posted a message on Twitter calling for unity among Haitians: “Let’s put our shoulders together to bring solidarity.”
U.S. sending search-and-rescue team
As he boarded a plane bound for Les Cayes, Henry said he wanted “structured solidarity” to ensure the response was co-ordinated to avoid the confusion that followed the devastating 2010 earthquake, when aid was slow to reach residents after an estimated 250,000 Haitians were killed.
U.S. President Joe Biden authorized an immediate response and named USAID Administrator Samantha Power to oversee the U.S effort to help Haiti. USAID will help to assess damage and assist in rebuilding, said Biden, who called the United States a “close and enduring friend to the people of Haiti.”
Power announced on Sunday that USAID was sending a search-and-rescue team at the request of Haiti’s government. The 65-person team will bring specialized tools and medical supplies to assist with the disaster response, Power said on Twitter.
Argentina and Chile also were among the first nations to promise help.
The North Carolina-based aid group Samaritan’s Purse announced Sunday it would airlift 13 disaster response specialists and 31 tons of emergency supplies to Haiti. Those include shelter materials and water filtration units.
Gang activity complicates relief efforts
Humanitarian workers said gang activity in the seaside district of Martissant, just west of the Haitian capital, was also complicating relief efforts.
“Nobody can travel through the area,” Ndiaga Seck, a UNICEF spokesperson in Port-au-Prince, said by phone. “We can only fly over or take another route.”
Seck said information about deaths and damage was slow coming to Port-au-Prince because of spotty internet service, but UNICEF planned to send medical supplies to two hospitals in the south, in Les Cayes and Jérémie.
People in Port-au-Prince felt the tremor, and many rushed into the streets in fear, although there did not appear to be damage there.
Haiti, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes. A magnitude 5.9 earthquake in 2018 killed more than a dozen people.