PORT-AU-PRINCE // A major earthquake rocked Haiti yesterday, killing possibly thousands of people as it toppled the presidential palace and hillside shanties alike, leaving the poor Caribbean nation appealing for international help. A five-story UN building was also brought down on Tuesday by the 7.0 magnitude quake, the most powerful to hit Haiti in more than 200 years according to the US Geological Survey. 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 quake's epicentre was only 10 miles (16 km) from Port-au-Prince, which has a population of about 1 million, and aftershocks as powerful as 5.9 rattled the city throughout the night and into today. Reports on casualties and damage were slow to get out of Haiti due to communication problems.
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster. "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 US 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. I'm asking the Haitians who are abroad to work together and bring all the effort in a concerted manner to help those back home." Sara Fajardo, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, told the Los Angeles Times that it's representative in Haiti said the death toll could be in the thousands.
The US president Barack Obama said his "thoughts and prayers" were with the people of Haiti and pledged immediate aid. A late-night White House meeting involving various arms of the government was held to coordinate the US response. The Inter-American Development Bank said it would provide $200,000 (Dh734,000) in immediate emergency aid. The World Bank, which said its local offices were destroyed but that most staff were accounted for, plans to send a team to help Haiti assess damage and plan a recovery. The US Coast Guard in Miami said it had mobilised cutters and aircraft to positions close to Haiti to give humanitarian assistance as needed. The quake hit at 5 pm local time, and experts said the quake's epicentre was very shallow at a depth of only 6.2 miles (10 km), which was likely to have magnified the destruction.
The presidential palace lay in ruins, its domes fallen on top of flattened walls. CNN reported on its website that the Mr Joseph said the president Rene Preval was safe, but gave no further details. Bloodied and dazed survivors gathered in the open and corpses were pinned by debris. The United Nations said a large number of its personnel in Haiti were unaccounted for after a five-story building at the headquarters of the UN mission collapsed.
"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." In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, Mr 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."
UN 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.
The UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the main UN building in Port-au-Prince had collapsed. "We don't know how many people were in the building," he told reporters.
Some 9,000 UN police and troops are stationed there to maintain order. China's state-run media reported that eight Chinese peacekeepers were buried in rubble and 10 others were missing while the Jordanian army said three Jordanian peacekeepers were killed and 21 wounded.
Mr Le Roy's deputy Edmond Mulet said 200 to 250 people worked in the building during normal hours. There were more houses destroyed than standing in Delmas Road, a major thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince, another Food for the Poor employee said. The Hotel Montana, where many foreigners stay, was also damaged.
The powerful quake was felt in southeastern Cuba, about 260km from the epicentre. Cuban authorities evacuated coastal residents because of the initial tsunami threat. "I was seated on the terrace and I thought my chair had slid out from under me but I realised it was an earthquake," said Eduardo Machin, a resident of the coastal city of Santiago de Cuba. "It was very strong."
Sailors at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba felt the quake but there was no damage to the base or the detention camp where the United States holds 198 foreign terrorism suspects, said Chief Petty Officer Bill Mesta. "It just shook a number of the buildings," Mesta said.
* With agencies