Haiti’s Capital in Ruins

The powerful earthquake that rocked Haiti “destroyed” much of Port-au-Prince, the country’s first lady reported, as the widespread devastation in the country’s teeming capital came into full view Wednesday as dawn broke.

“We talked with the first lady of Haiti last night, at least our consulate general in Miami did,” Raymond Joseph, Haitian ambassador to the United States, told CNN’s American Morning, referring to Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour.

“And she said that she was all right and the president {Rene Preval] was all right, and most government officials were all right because this thing happened after hours, and most of the government buildings that have collapsed, collapsed after the employees were out.”

But “the bad news is that she said most of Port-au-Prince is destroyed, and she’s calling for some help in the form of a hospital ship off the coast of Port-au-Prince, just in the same way that the United States had helped us in 2008 after four hurricanes hit Haiti in three weeks.”

The United States was the first to offer help after the 7.0-magnitude quake hit Haiti on Tuesday, Joseph said. He told reporters at the Haitian Embassy in Washington that it is crucial to assess the condition of the airport at Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, so aid can start coming in.

“God has given, God has taken away,” he said, urging that the living must be the priority right now.

While there was no clear estimate of the dead and wounded early Wednesday, the U.S. State Department had been told to expect a profound loss of life.

The quake’s destruction included the U.N. peacekeeper compound, a five-story building where about 250 people work every day.

Three Jordanian peacekeepers died and an additional 21 were injured, according to the state-run Petra News Agency.

The U.N. Haitian mission chief and the agency’s deputy special representative are unaccounted for in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday.

The International Federation of the Red Cross estimated that 3 million people were affected by the earthquake.

“This is obviously a tremendous tragedy that happened just before sundown last night,” Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told CNN on Wednesday.

“Our teams have been working in a coordinated and aggressive way all night to make sure the U.S. mounts an effective response in supporting saving lives, which is the president’s absolute top priority for this first period of 72 hours when we search and save as many lives as we can.”

Limited communications hampered reporting of casualties and destruction. But the quake had reportedly brought down The Hotel Montana, popular with foreigners visiting Port-au-Prince. French Minister of Cooperation Alain Joyandet expressed concern Wednesday for the approximately 200 French tourists staying there.

Night fell a few hours after the earthquake reduced buildings as grand as the National Palace to rubble and knocked down phone and power lines.

Wounded people, white with dust, filled the streets. Women clutched their babies, desperate to find help. Others stretched their arms skyward, calling out Jesus’ name.

Communication with people in Haiti was, at best, sketchy and achieved mainly through social networking sites such as Twitter and YouTube and via Internet phone.

“Everybody is camping in the streets of Port-au-Prince sleeping under the stars to wake up from an awful nightmare,” photographer Frederic Dupoux wrote in a Twitter post early Wednesday.

“It’s really ugly, just like in a bad dream,” he had written earlier. “People need help, get out and help!”

The faithful prayed late into the evening — for relief, for mercy, for safety — as at least 28 aftershocks of magnitude of 4.0 or greater rumbled across the country. The quake was centered about 6 miles (10 kilometers) underground, a depth that can produce severe shaking, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Several witnesses reported heavy damage and bodies in the streets of the congested capital, where concrete-block homes line the steep hillsides leading inland from the city’s waterfront.

Yvonne Trimble, who has worked as a missionary in Haiti for more than 30 years, said the quake rattled the walls of her three-story home. She sat frozen in her chair as glasses crashed to the floor from her china cabinet, she said in a post to iReport, the CNN Web site that allows people to submit pictures and videos.

“I have been a missionary since 1975 and have been through coup d’états, revolution, civil war and never been so terrified in my life,” she said.

Mike Godfrey, an American contractor working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said “a huge plume of dust and smoke rose up over the city” within minutes of the quake — “a blanket that completely covered the city and obscured it for about 20 minutes until the atmosphere dissipated the dust.”

The quake hit shortly before 5 p.m., and was centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince, the USGS reported. It could be felt strongly in eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles away, and resulted in a tsunami watch being posted for Haiti and parts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. The watch was canceled about an hour after the quake.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. Embassy reported that the airport was in good enough shape for the United States to start sending teams and assistance Wednesday.

“We have some assets ready to go,” Crowley said.

The U.N. World Food Programme also planned to send a plane with 87 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, said spokeswoman Bettina Luescher in New York. That’s enough to feed 30,000 people for a week.

The agency regularly feeds more than 1 million people in Haiti and has food stored in warehouses. The WFP feared looting because people are desperate, Luescher said.

Teams from Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, on the ground said they witnessed significant damage to the organization’s medical facilities, injuries to patients and staff, and an influx of wounded toward hospitals in the capital.

MSF said its Trinité trauma center hospital, a 60-bed structure and one of the only free-of-charge surgical facilities in Port-au-Prince, was seriously damaged by the quake.

Many of the concrete-block homes in Port-au-Prince are built “helter-skelter all over the place,” Joseph said. That construction is “a recipe for disaster” when an earthquake strikes, said Kate Hutton, a seismologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In Washington, President Obama said the U.S. government would “stand ready to assist the people of Haiti.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that Washington is offering “our full assistance” to Haiti, “And our prayers are with the people who have suffered, their families and their loved ones.”

The disaster is the latest to befall the Caribbean country, roughly the size of Maryland, which is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and among the poorest in the world.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Timothy M. Carney told CNN that Port-au-Prince was particularly at risk because it grew rapidly from a population of about 250,000 in the mid-1950s to more than 2 million today, all with little oversight.

Outside the capital, several people were hurt when they rushed out of a school in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, said the Rev. Kesner Ajax, the school’s executive director. Two homes in the area collapsed and the top of a church collapsed in a nearby town, he said, but he did not know of any fatalities. Cayes is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Buildings shook in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, but no major damage was reported there, according to The New York Times.

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