Tens of thousands feared dead after Haiti earthquake
Thursday, January 14, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Haitian leaders estimated Wednesday that tens of thousands of people have died in the aftermath of the earthquake that throttled this impoverished Caribbean nation, as the United States and other countries mobilized a vast rescue and relief effort to assist the legion of desperate survivors.
Untold numbers of people remained trapped under rubble a day after the 7.0-magnitude quake struck the capital, Port-au-Prince, a coastal sprawl of makeshift shacks, cinder-block buildings and historic gingerbread homes that witnesses described as a scene of unfolding chaos.
Caked in the flour-white dust of crushed plaster and cement, Haitians dug out family members by hand and piled bodies on street corners, as clusters of bloodied and dazed survivors pleaded for help. The government, depleted by death and injury itself, appeared unable to mount a significant rescue effort in the hemisphere's poorest nation.
President Obama dispatched military relief vessels and warships to stand off the Haitian coast, pledging "the deep condolences and unwavering support of the American people." Capitals from Brasilia to Beijing quickly put together aid packages and organized search missions in Haiti, where thousands of foreign residents remained unaccounted for. Within a fearful Haitian diaspora following the tragedy through grim television images, relatives scoured the Internet and taxed the already weak communications links to the country in search of information about their loved ones.
"It's the disaster of the century" for Haiti, Karel Zelenka, director of Catholic Relief Services in Port-au-Prince, told U.S. colleagues in an e-mail Wednesday morning. "We should be prepared for thousands and thousands of dead and injured."
Years of political strife and a devastating 2008 hurricane season have left Haiti a volatile nation with battered roads, a weak public health system and a landscape of slums that witnesses said Wednesday had largely collapsed across the capital. The relief efforts are likely to be severely hampered by the fact that government agencies and international organizations charged with helping coordinate assistance operations have themselves been shattered by the quake.
The hotel that served as the United Nations headquarters in the country collapsed, leaving more than 100 people, including special envoy Hédi Annabi, unaccounted for in the wreckage. U.N. officials confirmed the deaths of 13 Brazilian and Jordanian peacekeepers, with many others missing. In Washington, a White House official told Haitian activists that three Americans have been confirmed dead.
Searching for the living
On the outskirts of the capital, two cranes and dozens of rescue workers scooped up gravel, dust and wood beams from a four-story building that had collapsed the day before. Three bodies had been removed from the pile earlier in the day, and as night fell, the men worked to rescue three more believed to be trapped in what had been offices. Some used plastic buckets to move the plaster and scattered wood.
As he watched the effort, Dunois Jean-Baptiste, 44, recalled the "huge dust cloud and . . . big rumbling" of the previous day.
"We heard people calling for help," he said.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, officials told reporters that heavy equipment, search personnel and medical teams were urgently needed in a nation that has scant public resources in the best of times.
"Basic services such as water and electricity have collapsed almost entirely," said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Medical facilities have been inundated with injured."