Nearly 1,300 confirmed dead in Haiti earthquake as rescue crews fear aftershocks, storms
Charlotte Observer (NC)
Almost 1,300 people have lost their lives in the major earthquake that struck Southwestern Haiti, where aftershocks and looming tropical weather threatened to hinder search and rescue teams and humanitarian efforts.
Officials on Sunday evening said 1,297 people were confirmed dead, and 30,250 families were homeless following the strong quake that toppled buildings in the nation’s southwestern peninsula on Saturday. A day after the tremor, people in Haiti’s government and across and array of humanitarian organizations said some of the hardest hit communities are in desperate need of potable water and temporary shelters to house families who lost everything.
The disaster response in Haiti is set against a challenging backdrop as heavy rains from a tropical depression are expected to roll over the region Monday, and political instability one month after the country’s president was assassinated. Amid the uncertainty, aid workers assessed damage and took stock of will be a significant recovery effort for a country still struggling to recuperate after the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“There are times when you feel so powerless in the face of such a disaster,” said Akim Kikonda, Catholic Legal Services’ top administrator in Haiti, on Sunday.
Haitian officials said the southern peninsula’s largest city, Les Cayes, was pummeled by the quake, leaving many people dead or homeless. The main supermarket and smaller grocery stores collapsed, leaving about half-a-million people with dwindling food supplies and drinking water. Many hospitals and clinics were heavily damaged, leaving the area with limited numbers of medical facilities and doctors. Aid workers in Haiti said that doctors had to treat injured people on the floor or outside.
“It’s an area that’s been totally destroyed,” Haitian Sen. Joseph Lambert told the Herald Sunday. “The situation is very chaotic. It is certain that in the days to come there will be huge sanitary problems, food shortage problems and famine.”
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Concerned about potential chaos in the relief effort, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry issued an edict saying all donations from foreign countries and private organizations must be delivered to the island’s government so it can coordinate the distribution of make-shift shelters, food and medicine to the areas most affected by the devastating quake.
The order puts Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection in charge of all donations. He said the goal is to limit the mismanagement of donations that took place after Hurricane Matthew struck five years ago, when the distribution of aid to storm-ravaged communities was uneven. Some areas received a lot of donations, while others were ignored, leading to outbreaks of violence.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs led a Sunday evening call with multiple organizations to coordinate aid efforts and avoid past problems with getting relief directly to the people who need it.
On Sunday, foreign assistance from the U.S. government, United Nations and others was already starting to arrive in Haiti. The U.S. Agency for International Development deployed an urban search and rescue team to join Haiti’s disaster response effort. The 65-person deployment brought 52,000 pounds of specialized tools, equipment and medical supplies to assist in search operations, officials said.
U.S. Coast Guards helicopters flew in from Clearwater, Florida, and were flying between the quake-struck region and the capital. About a dozen injured patients were brought in from Jeremie before one of the choppers flew to Miragoane and then Les Cayes for more rescues.
Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, said the agency’s team is working with the Haitian government and did an aerial assessment Sunday, spotting widespread destruction. The region is “difficult to access” because of security conditions, damaged roads and washed-out bridges.
Charles said that in addition to getting aid workers and supplies into the area, the potential for a torrential rainfall of four to eight inches in Haiti from a projected tropical storm “adds another complication to what is already a complicated logistics picture.”
“But our first priority is to get assistance to those that are in need in the safest way possible,” Charles told the McClatchy bureau in Washington, D.C.
Non-governmental organizations, including Humanity & Inclusion with 50 workers in Haiti, are also extending assistance.
“My colleagues are seeing serious rehabilitation, mental health and psycho-social needs,” said the NGO’s spokeswoman Mica Bevington.
The quake brought down buildings, homes, hospitals and historic cathedrals in the impoverished nation of 11 million people, who are still struggling to recover from a devastating quake that left more than 300,000 dead over a decade ago. The situation is compounded by government instability and dysfunction, worsened by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July, and the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of resources to deal with it. The country received its first batch of U.S.-donated coronavirus vaccines only last month via a United Nations program for low-income countries.
Haitians post scenes of devastation, despair and hope on social media after 7.2 quake
The quake, registered as a magnitude 7.2, forced government officials, humanitarian workers and weary Haitian citizens to dig through rubble for survivors, find water and food for the hungry and gauge the scope of yet another large-scale disaster — all with Tropical Storm Grace headed toward the country in the next few days.
The prime minister’s office said emergency responders were assessing the damages. But even as damage assessments were ramping up, the country was still seeing a string of smaller aftershocks. They are a common occurrence following big earthquakes but unnerving for residents and potentially dangerous in areas with heavily damaged structures.
Making emergency response even more complicated is that the four regions struck by the quake have been cut off by violent armed gang warfare at the southern entrance of Haiti’s capital. Since June 1, the gang clashes have forced the displacement of over 16,000 Haitians from their homes in the poor neighborhood of Martissant.
Jean Rebel Dorcenat, who heads the disarmament effort, said on Sunday he asked one of the gang leaders personally to allow for a humanitarian corridor. Contact was also made with representatives of two other gang leaders that have been fighting.
“Since yesterday there hasn’t been any shooting in Martissant. Vehicles have been passing,” Dorcenat said, adding that he hails from the region and is himself a victim of the violence.
Haitian officials and aid workers remained wary of their change of position; if it holds, the highway would allow aid to flow to devastated areas, alleviating concerns that trucks delivering the supplies would be held up and looted.
The quake damage was centered along the Tiburon, the country’s southwestern peninsula, about 80 miles west of the nation’s capital in Port-au-Prince. It’s less densely populated than the capital, but images posted on social media suggested there will be many more casualties. Some showed collapsed homes and the Catholic cathedral turned to rubble in Les Anglais, which is part of Jeremie in the Grand Anse region.
In Jeremie, the main public hospital was filled to capacity with people with broken limbs, said Ricardo Chery, a local journalist. In the center of Beaumont, a nearby rural community, eight deaths were reported. “In one house there are three children who died together. In my presence they entered with 20 corpses. There is no more space.”
Jeremie, on the north coast of the peninsula, has also been cut off from the region’s largest city, Les Cayes, because the quake loosened boulders that blocked the main road between them.
Sen. Lambert said Les Cayes, a port city on the south coast, has suffered widespread damage and death, with homeless people wandering the streets in panic out of fear of reentering buildings during the aftershocks.
The port city’s 40-unit Hotel Le Manguier also collapsed, causing “several deaths,” according to Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s disaster response. “There are a lot of houses, a lot of structures that have been damaged; a lot of buildings have collapsed,” he said. “Efforts are being made to remove people ... aid is being given in certain medical centers.”
Officials confirmed Haitian news reports that former Haitian senator and Les Cayes Mayor Gabriel Fortuné, who owned the hotel, was found dead in the rubble.
“Up to now, they are removing dead bodies” from the hotel, Lambert told the Herald.
Aftershocks were felt throughout the day and through the night. Many people now homeless or frightened by the possibility of their fractured homes collapsing on them stayed in the streets to sleep.
Claude Prepetit, Haiti’s chief seismologist, said the regional damage might not be as widespread as the 2010 quake in Port-au-Prince, but he warned that aftershocks would still topple buildings. ”This is why we are asking people not to run back into buildings,” Prepetit said. “Wait on the evaluations.”
Like other experts who had been monitoring Haiti’s fault zones, he did not think the next big one would be in the south of the country.
”For me, this was a surprise and it shows us that an earthquake is something that is totally unpredictable,” he said. “There was nothing to say that this [Saturday] morning there would have been an earthquake and it would had occurred in this area.”
If that wasn’t enough, Haiti is in the cone for Tropical Storm Grace, which could be approaching by late Monday. There’s great concern — not because of wind but because of potentially significant rainfall that could create mud and further destabilize buildings. In turn, that might slow rescue crews.
The quake-struck region was also hit by Hurricane Matthew, which wiped out agriculture crops.
“This is one of the most untimely things that can happen when it comes to Haiti,” said Skyler Badenoch, CEO of Hope for Haiti, a local charity that employs about 60 people and provides health services.
“There is a tremendous amount of worry for the safety of our team and their families and what this means for the country and the region,” Badenoch said. “The first thing we are laser focused on is trying to contact everybody on the phone, to hear their voice and make sure they are OK. We know there is a lot of emotional stress when it comes to earthquakes.”
The USGS placed the quake magnitude at 7.2, as did the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, with the epicenter about 75 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince. If verified, it would make the seismic event stronger than the 7.0 quake that left much of the city in ruins in 2010. Tremors were felt all the way in Jamaica.
Haiti has two prominent fault zones. The Saturday morning earthquake happened over the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, where the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in 2010.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Dear lord, not another hit,’ ” said Florida International University professor Richard Olson, who studies the politics of disasters. “We’re in the middle of hurricane season. They haven’t ever really recovered from [the] 2010 event, and then the assassination and political instability that surrounds that. I’m almost afraid of anything else that can go wrong.”
Miami Herald staff writer Syra Ortiz-Blanes contributed to this report.