Haitians are scouring shattered buildings in search of friends and relatives trapped in the rubble after a devastating earthquake struck the Caribbean country, killing nearly 1,300 people and injuring many others.
The 7.2-magnitude quake flattened hundreds of homes in the impoverished country, which is still clawing its way back from another major temblor 11 years ago and has been without a head of state since the assassination of its president last month.
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At least 1,297 people were killed in the powerful earthquake, the Haitian civil protection agency said on Sunday evening, updating a previous toll of 724, while more than 5,700 others were injured.
In addition to people who remain missing, “many others are under the rubble”, the agency said in a statement. It also said nearly 3,200 people wounded in the quake are being treated in various hospitals.
Southwestern Haiti bore the brunt of the quake, especially in the region in and around the city of Les Cayes. Churches, hotels, hospitals and schools were badly damaged or destroyed, while the walls of a prison were opened by the violent shudders that convulsed Haiti.
People in Les Cayes tried to pull guests from the rubble of a collapsed hotel, but as the sun set, they had only been able to recover the body of a 7-year-old girl whose home was behind the facility.
“I have eight kids, and I was looking for the last one,” Jean-Claude Daniel said through tears. “I will never see her again alive. The earthquake destroyed my life. It took a child away from me.”
Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who was thrust to the forefront of the country after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7, declared a one-month state of emergency on Saturday and called on Haitians “to show a lot of solidarity” in the aftermath of the quake.
Henry said in a tweet on Sunday that several emergency response teams were providing aid to disaster victims in the country’s southern regions. “I want to be closer to the population to assist them in these difficult times. That’s why I’m there,” he said.
Some Haitians said they would sleep in the open, traumatised by memories of the magnitude 7.0 quake in 2010 that struck far closer to the sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed tens of thousands of people.
The country’s civil protection agency tweeted on Saturday that efforts by “both professional rescuers and members of the public have led to many people being pulled from the rubble”, adding already-overburdened hospitals continued to receive the injured.
Footage posted on social media showed residents reaching into narrow openings in piles of fallen masonry to pull out shocked and distraught people from the debris of walls and roofs that crumbled around them.
“Lots of homes are destroyed, people are dead and some are at the hospital,” Christella Saint Hilaire, 21, who lives near the epicentre, told AFP news agency.
Hôtel Le Manguier in Okay, #Haiti is "completely flattened" and it's owner, former Senator Gabriel Fortune, was reportedly in the building when the 7.2 earthquake struck the city earlier today. pic.twitter.com/tFhzGZgWio
— HaitiInfoProj (@HaitiInfoProj) August 14, 2021
Access to the worst-hit areas was complicated by a deterioration in law and order that has left key access roads in parts of Haiti in the hands of gangs, although unconfirmed reports on social media suggested they would let aid pass.
The killing of Moise at his home in Port-au-Prince last month has also plunged Haiti into further political instability, and observers have questioned how the Haitian government would be able to respond to the latest crisis befalling the nation.
Long racked by political instability, Haitians have also suffered at the hands of international aid efforts and peace-keeping deployments during the past decade.
As he boarded a plane bound for Les Cayes, Henry said he wanted “structured solidarity” to ensure the response was coordinated to avoid the confusion that followed the devastating 2010 earthquake, when aid was slow to reach residents.
US President Joe Biden authorised an immediate response and US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power said on Sunday that the agency was sending a 65-person search and rescue team at the request of Haiti’s government.
A team of experts from the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) office in Port-au-Prince was also deployed to help assess the damage and coordinate a response.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti on this truly sad day,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a statement on Saturday. “Our team of experts is on the ground and stands ready to assist in all aspects of health response.”
The earthquake sent tremors travelling as far as Jamaica and Cuba, and countries in the region quickly offered help to Haiti.
Writing on Twitter, tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father’s family is from Haiti, expressed her sorrow about the latest quake, saying she would give all the prize money she won at a tournament this week to the relief efforts.
“I know our ancestor’s blood is strong,” she said, “we’ll keep rising.”