Thousands feared dead as major quake strikes Haiti

9:16am EST

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – A major earthquake rocked Haiti, killing possibly thousands of people as it toppled the presidential palace and hillside shanties alike and left the Caribbean nation appealing for international help.

A five-story U.N. headquarters building was also brought down by Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude quake, the most powerful to hit Haiti in more than 200 years according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Reuters television footage from the capital, Port-au-Prince, showed scenes of chaos on the streets with people sobbing and appearing dazed amid the rubble. The presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls.

The quake’s epicenter was only 10 miles from Port-au-Prince. About 4 million people live in the city and surrounding area. Aftershocks as powerful as 5.9 rattled the city throughout the night and into Wednesday.

Reports on casualties and damage were slow to emerge due to communication problems.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he feared everyone in the U.N. building was killed when it collapsed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the missing included the chief of the U.N. mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, but he could not confirm reports Annabi had died. He said some 100-150 people were in the building when the quake struck.

Several bodies had been recovered from the wreckage of the U.N. headquarters, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said. He told reporters fewer than 10 people, “some dead, some alive,” had been pulled from the rubble but many remained underneath.

Brazilian General Carlos Barcellos said at least four Brazilian members of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti were killed and a large number of Brazilian soldiers were missing.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster, lacking heavy equipment to move debris and sufficient emergency personnel.

“I am appealing to the world, especially the United States, to do what they did for us back in 2008 when four hurricanes hit Haiti,” Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to Washington, said in a CNN interview.

“At that time the U.S. dispatched … a hospital ship off the coast of Haiti. I hope that will be done again … and help us in this dire situation that we find ourselves in.”

He said Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife were unharmed despite the collapse of the presidential palace, but that it was impossible to estimate causalities.

“If a building like the palace, which is very solid, collapsed, then the devastation is going to be worse because a lot of the buildings are not up to code around Port-au-Prince,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America. “They’re flimsy little abodes hanging on the sides of hills.”

Sara Fajardo, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, told the Los Angeles Times its representative in Haiti said the death toll could be in the thousands.

The Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) aid organization said it was treating about 600 people in its hospitals in Haiti. It also was sending reinforcements to the disaster zone, as was the International Red Cross.

U.S. ORGANIZING RESPONSE

U.S. President Barack Obama said his “thoughts and prayers” were with the people of Haiti and pledged immediate aid. He was to make a statement on the quake on Wednesday.

A late-night White House meeting involving various arms of the government took place to coordinate the U.S. response. The State Department urged Americans not to travel to Haiti.

In Geneva, U.N. officials said they expected the world body would issue an international emergency appeal for funds and other assistance for Haiti in the next few days, once needs on the ground had been assessed.

Germany was sending 1 million euros in immediate aid, said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, adding “I’m shocked by the dimensions of the earthquake disaster in Haiti.”

The Inter-American Development Bank said it would provide $200,000 in immediate aid. The World Bank, which said its local offices were destroyed but most staff were safe, planned to send a team to help assess damage and plan a recovery.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it was sending cutters and aircraft close to Haiti to give humanitarian assistance. The United States, Britain, Canada and France were sending reconnaissance and rescue teams, some with search dogs and heavy equipment.

The quake hit at 5 p.m. (2200 GMT), and witnesses reported people screaming “Jesus, Jesus” running into the streets as offices, hotels, houses and shops collapsed. Experts said the quake’s epicenter was very shallow at a depth of only 6.2 miles, which was likely to have magnified the destruction.

Bloodied and dazed survivors gathered in the open and corpses were pinned by debris.

“The whole city is in darkness. You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go,” said Rachmani Domersant, an operations manager with the Food for the Poor charity. “There are people running, crying, screaming.”

LITTLE HELP FOR VICTIMS

In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, Domersant said he saw no police or rescue vehicles.

“People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights,” he said. “I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement.”

Witnesses said they saw homes and shanties built on hillsides tumble as the earth shook.

“The car was bouncing off the ground,” Domersant said.

U.N. officials said normal communications had been cut off and the only way to talk with people on the ground was via satellite phone. Roads were blocked by rubble.

Some 9,000 U.N. police and troops are stationed in Haiti to maintain order and many countries were trying to determine the welfare of their personnel.

France’s minister for cooperation, Alain Joyandet, said on French radio the Hotel Montana had collapsed and that about 100 of its 300 guests had been evacuated.

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