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Haiti quake survivors sought amid 'unimaginable' destruction

Entire hillsides of homes appear to have tumbled during Tuesday's 7.0 earthquake, which may have killed thousands. President Obama says the U.S. will help however it can.

January 14, 2010|By Tina Susman and Joe Mozingo and Ken Ellingwood
  • A woman tries to help rescue a survivor whose voice she heard from beneath the collapsed Haitian Department of Justice building in Port-au-Prince.
A woman tries to help rescue a survivor whose voice she heard from beneath… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Mexico City -- The capital of Haiti lay in ruins Wednesday, shattered by an earthquake it was not built to withstand. With most international aid yet to arrive, bodies lined the streets, the injured gathered at hospitals devoid of doctors or functioning equipment, swaths of the city were reduced to rubble and even the presidential palace -- long a symbol of whatever stability the country could muster -- was damaged and sagging.

Most telecommunications were down, making it next to impossible for the government and aid agencies to count the casualties or assess the extent of damage from the magnitude 7.0 quake that struck Tuesday afternoon.

President Rene Preval described the destruction as "unimaginable" and predicted that the death toll would reach into the thousands. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said a preliminary assessment led him to fear that the number of dead could be "well over 100,000."

Rescuers, often equipped with little more than their hands, hunted for survivors amid a grim tableau of destruction. Entire hillsides of homes appeared to have tumbled, while in other areas structures stood unaffected next to piles of dusty debris. Some buildings lay in pancake-like concrete heaps.

Relief workers said it could take a day or two to know how many of Haiti's 9 million residents need assistance.

Homeless or fearful survivors took shelter under tarps on the grounds outside the prime minister's office and elsewhere across the capital. As night fell, crowds filled downtown streets. People sought open-air spots to spend the night, either because they were afraid to be indoors or had no home left.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is a place where misery is an everyday condition and disasters -- of both the natural and man-caused variety -- are not uncommon. At best, the government has made only halting progress toward improving the lives of its citizens. The quake, said to be the strongest in the country in 200 years, caused death and destruction of a whole new magnitude.

In a predominantly Catholic country that already relied heavily on United Nations relief, the dead were reported to include the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and at least 16 U.N. personnel, possibly including the head of the U.N. mission. Both the hotel that served as U.N. headquarters and the city's main cathedral were heavily damaged, as were the Parliament building, schools, hospitals and other hotels.

The U.N. reported that the main prison also had collapsed and that inmates escaped.

Some looting was reported, and about 3,000 police officers and international peacekeepers were trying to maintain security.

U.S. officials said most of the damage appeared to be concentrated around Port-au-Prince, a teeming city of 2 million that sits like a hive of gray concrete that creeps up a mountainside rising out of the Caribbean. The homes are mostly made of cheap, porous concrete made with sand from nearby quarries.

In the aftermath of the quake, entire big-box apartment blocks had collapsed along roads carved into the hills. Rubble had blown out onto the roads. Next to the debris lay bodies, their faces dutifully covered by sheets.

On Martin Luther King Avenue, just past a sign reading, "Bienvenue a Port-au-Prince," the slender legs of three young children poked out from under sheets. The bodies of three adults were strewn nearby.

At two badly damaged hospitals in the capital, there were virtually no doctors or medical workers in sight.

Outside St. Esprit Hospital, bodies lay on the street, including that of a woman whose white hair showed above the sheet covering her, with a small child next to her.

But behind the compound's iron doors, the scene was worse: people dead and apparently dying on the ground as their relatives stood by helplessly, watching them. Some of the injured wept in pain; others lay silently.

One man dragged visitors to see his mother, who lay on her back wearing only a light yellow flowery robe. She was on the street just outside the hospital gate, one leg clearly broken.

"I don't know what to do," another man lamented as he dragged visitors over to look at his cousin, who lay on the ground covered only with a towel.

Many of those on the ground had been hooked up to IVs from the hospital, but apparently by their own relatives.

President Obama called the earthquake a "cruel and incomprehensible tragedy," and promised that the U.S. would help in any way it could.

"This is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity we all share," Obama said in televised remarks from the White House. "With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us, Haitians are our neighbors in the Americas and here at home."

The U.S. military deployed a 30-member team to assess the damage and help manage the response. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters evacuated four severely injured U.S. Embassy employees to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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