Haiti: Presidential palace and hospital among buildings hit

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A devastating earthquake struck the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti last night, causing what first reports said was widespread damage in the densely populated capital of Port-au-Prince with one hospital among numerous buildings said to have collapsed.

Part of the national palace, which is home to Haiti's first family, had also collapsed. Information on the precise extent of casualties remained sketchy as evening became night across the country. However, early reports suggested the numbers hurt and killed could turn out to be very significant.

The earthquake, which was followed quickly by severe aftershocks, measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. Its power and scope to cause grave damage may have been exacerbated because it occurred just ten miles from the capital and was only about six miles deep, which geologically speaking is shallow.

A report from Associated Press said a hospital in Port-au-Prince had been toppled. Other eyewitnesses spoke of structures collapsing across the city and a shroud of grey dust filling the sky before it became dark. Traffic was at a standstill and wails and screams could be heard in many neighbourhoods.

For a people already hurt by a recent history of cycles of political violence and wrenching poverty, the aftershocks brought instant panic and despair. The city of Port-au-Prince is a place of crammed chaos at the best of times with buildings barely built to withstand quakes. The potential for devastation will have been worsened because much of the city is built on mountainsides. "Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken," said Henry Bahn, a visiting official with the US Department of Agriculture who was in his hotel when it hit. "I just held on and bounced across the wall. I just hear a tremendous amount of noise and shouting and screaming in the distance."

As the disaster began to unfold last night, countries including the United States, Canada and Mexico were preparing to deploy emergency assistance to the country. There is already a significant United Nations presence in the country.

The International Red Cross said they were having difficulty contacting their representatives on the ground. The charity has a large warehouse of supplies in Panama which was being put on standby last night to deliver humanitarian supplies.

"Haiti has been portrayed all the time as the poorest country in the western hemisphere and now it has been hit by the worst catastrophe," the Haitian ambassador to the US, Raymond Alcide Joseph, declared. "So I am calling on all friends of Haiti... to please come to our aid."

Haiti is the most thickly populated country in the western hemisphere. Nine million live across the country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, but upwards of two million co-exist in the city of Port-au-Prince.

It appeared to be the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Caribbean basin, an American seismology expert suggested last night.

Early fears of a tsunami affecting neighbouring countries, including Cuba and the Bahamas, eased as night fell. That said, the shock of the earthquake were felt over wide part of the region, with reports that it had been felt as far away as the British and American Virgin Islands and in Cuba.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti."