Tens of thousands feared dead after Haiti earthquake

By Mary Beth Sheridan, William Branigin and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 14, 2010; A01

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."

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Haitian President René Préval described scenes from the capital that he characterized as "unimaginable."

The Haitian parliament building crumbled, and the graceful, snow-white National Palace that sat on a rare patch of emerald lawn in the heart of the capital lies in ruins. A prison in Port-au-Prince broke apart, allowing some inmates to escape. The city's Roman Catholic archbishop is among the dead.

"The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," Préval said. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."

Later, on CNN, Préval said he been informed that the death toll could be 30,000 to 50,000. He lamented that injured people have been lying in the streets since the quake struck, saying, "We don't have the capacity to bring them to the hospital."

"There are risks that houses continue to collapse," he said. "There are risks of an epidemic."

Health concerns

Public health officials in Washington echoed those concerns. The Pan American Health Organization dispatched a team of experts from Panama to assist in the management of mass casualties, the delivery of emergency medical care and the disposal of bodies.

"We fear the impact of this earthquake will be particularly devastating due to the vulnerability of Haiti's people," said Jon K. Andrus, the organization's deputy director.

The United States, France, China and the Dominican Republic are sending search-and-rescue teams to Haiti, a country of 9 million people with a primitive network of two-lane roads, only the most major of which are paved. Andrus said Brazil has sent three jets carrying 21 tons of equipment, and many countries have pledged money. Spain has sent planes with surgical teams.

A U.S. military official said tentative plans are underway for the hospital ship USNS Comfort -- which aided Haiti after hurricanes struck Port-au-Prince two years ago -- to dock off the coast and assist the sick and wounded.

"An unknown number, tens if not hundreds of thousands, have suffered varying degrees of destruction to their homes," Vincenzo Pugliese, deputy spokesman for the U.N. mission in Haiti, said in a statement. He said "major transport routes have been severely disrupted" by debris, smashed vehicles and cracks in the Earth.

Bodies placed in piles

The quake's epicenter was about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, home to as much as a third of the country's population. News reports from the capital said survivors were piling bodies outside as the sun rose. Communications networks were crippled across the island, making it difficult to determine the extent of the damage to other towns.

Much of the resort city of Jacmel -- whose architecture was a major influence on New Orleans -- appears to have been destroyed as well, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. A port city of about 40,000, Jacmel is Haiti's most popular tourist destination.

Bob Poff, director of disaster services for the Salvation Army in Haiti, said much of the organization's compound was badly damaged, although the children's home was intact. Poff was traveling in a truck when the quake struck, and he wrote in a message to colleagues that the vehicle was "tossed to and fro like a toy."

"I looked out the windows to see buildings 'pancaking' down," he wrote. "Thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled as many bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us. . . . All of them were older, scared, bleeding, and terrified."

Officials said the Port-au-Prince airport, which lost its control tower, is now able to receive relief flights. But pilots were on their own to coordinate landings.

U.N. officials said 3,000 peacekeepers had secured the airport and were patrolling the streets of the capital. John Holmes, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the chief U.N. relief agencies were relatively unscathed by the earthquake and would be in a fairly good position to mount relief operations on the ground.

"My own staff there, they are okay, they're safe, reasonably intact," Holmes said, adding that the World Food Program was flying in 90 metric tons of high-protein biscuits for displaced earthquake victims. "We can kick-start the operation."

Witnesses and journalists working in the capital described scenes of dust-covered women clawing out of debris and wailing. Stunned people wandered, holding hands, while many gravely injured people sat in the streets, pleading for doctors. Witnesses reported strong aftershocks.

Branigin and Wilson reported from Washington.

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