Haiti earthquake: Hundreds dead after 7.2-magnitude quake devastates island

US Geographical Survey issues ‘red alert’, warning fatalities could stretch into thousands

Chiara Giordano,Sabrina Johnson
Sunday 15 August 2021 00:27
Haitians deal with the immediate aftermath of devastating earthquake
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More than 300 people have been killed after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, just days before a tropical storm is expected to make landfall on the island.

At least 304 people have been confirmed as death and more than 1,800 injured in the wake of the powerful quake on Saturday, Haitian authorities said.

The US Geographical Survey has issued a “red alert” for the disaster, estimating fatalities could stretch into the thousands.

“High casualties and extensive damage are probable and the disaster is likely widespread,” the survey said, adding: “Past red alerts have required a national or international response.”

The country’s prime minister Ariel Henry said he was mobilising all available government resources to help victims in the affected areas.

The epicentre was about 78 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince the US Geological Survey said.

Haiti’s civil protection agency said search teams would be sent to the area.

Rescue workers and bystanders were able to pull many people to safety from the rubble, the agency said Saturday on Twitter. It said injured people were still being taken to hospitals.

The nearest big town was Les Cayes, where many buildings collapsed or suffered major damage, according to authorities, who said they were searching for survivors.

A truck is covered by parts of a wall that fell on it during an earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti

Jean Marie Simon, 38, a Les Cayes resident who was at the market when the earthquake struck ran home to see if his family was safe.

“I saw bodies being pulled out of the rubble, injured and perhaps dead people. I heard cries of pain everywhere I passed through,” he said.

His wife and two-year-old child had been bathing and rushed out to the street, naked, just before the front of the house crumbled. Simon gave his wife his shirt and they took refuge in the courtyard of a church with other locals. His mother’s house had also collapsed.

“There are a lot of aftershocks and every time there’s one, people run and shout,” he said. “My legs are still trembling.”

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaks during a press conference in Port-au-Prince on August 14, 2021, after an earthquake struck the southwest peninsula of the country.

Mr Henry said on Twitter that the “violent quake” had caused loss of life and damage in various parts of the country, and also appealed to Haitians to unify as they “confront this dramatic situation in which we’re living right now”.

He declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country. At a press conference, he said he would not ask for international help until the extent of the damage was known.

He said some towns were almost completely razed and the government had people in the coastal town of Les Cayes to help plan and co-ordinate the response.

“The most important thing is to recover as many survivors as possible under the rubble,” said Mr Henry.

“We have learned that the local hospitals, in particular that of Les Cayes, are overwhelmed with wounded, fractured people.”

He said the International Red Cross and hospitals in unaffected areas were helping to care for the injured, and appealed to Haitians for unity.

“The needs are enormous. We must take care of the injured and fractured, but also provide food, aid, temporary shelter and psychological support,” he said.

Epicentre of Haiti earthquake on 14 August 2021

Later, as he boarded a plane bound for Les Cayes, Mr 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 as many as 300,000 were killed.

Videos posted to social media showed collapsed buildings near the epicentre and people running into the streets.

Among those killed in the earthquake was Gabriel Fortune, a longtime lawmaker and former mayor of Les Cayes.

He died along with several others when his hotel, Le Manguier, collapsed, the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste reported. 

Philippe Boutin, 37, who lives in Puerto Rico but visits his family annually in Les Cayes, said his mother was saying morning prayers when the shaking began, but was able to leave the house. 

He said the earthquake coincided with festivities to celebrate the town’s patron saint, adding that the hotel likely was full and the small town had more people than usual. “We still don’t know how many people are under the rubble,” he said. 

A drone photograph of the damage caused by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Los Cayos, Haiti, 14 August 2021

Rescue efforts have been hampered by a landslide triggered by the quake that blocked a major road connecting the hard-hit towns of Jeremie and Les Cayes, according to Haiti’s civil protection agency.

Humanitarian workers said gang activity in the seaside district of Martissant, just west of the Haitian capital, was also complicating relief efforts.

Catholic priest Fredy Elie, who began working with the Mission in Haiti Congregation after the 2010 earthquake pleaded for help.

“It’s time to open the road to those who want to help – they need help from all of us,” he said.

“Nobody can travel through the area,” Ndiaga Seck, a UNICEF spokesman in Port-au-Prince said.

“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 Jeremie.

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.

The quake also sent shock waves as far as Cuba and Jamaica although there were no reports of material damage, deaths or injuries in either country.

Naomi Verneus, a 34-year-old resident of Port-au-Prince, said she was jolted awake by the earthquake and that her bed was shaking.

“I woke up and didn’t have time to put my shoes on,” she said. “We lived the 2010 earthquake and all I could do was run. I later remembered my two kids and my mother were still inside. My neighbour went in and told them to get out. We ran to the street.”

Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the USGS, said aftershocks likely will continue for weeks or months, with the largest so far registering a magnitude 5.2. 

The impoverished country, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes.

It was struck by a 5.9-magnitude earthquake in 2018 that killed more than a dozen people, and a 7.1 magnitude quake that damaged much of the capital in 2010 and killed an estimated 300,000 people.

People stand outside the residence of the Catholic bishop after it was damaged by an earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti

The National Hurricane Centre has forecasted that Tropical Storm Grace will reach Haiti late Monday night or early Tuesday morning.

The earthquake struck more than a month after president Jovenel Moise was killed, sending the country into political chaos, and humanitarian aid groups said the earthquake will add to the suffering.

“We’re concerned that this earthquake is just one more crisis on top of what the country is already facing – including the worsening political stalemate after the president’s assassination, Covid and food insecurity,” said Jean-Wickens Merone, spokesman for World Vision Haiti.

Concerns have also been raised for the safety of Haiti’s children amind the “massive humanitarian emergency” created by the earthquake.

Leila Bourahla, Save the Children’s Haiti country director said: “Staff in the region are seeing horrific devastation—dozens of collapsed houses, numerous injured people and fatalities.

“While it will take days to assess the full scale of the damage, it is clear that this is a massive humanitarian emergency. We must respond quickly and decisively.

“Children are always the worst affected and I am very concerned about their immediate safety.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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