At least 227 people died and hundreds are injured or missing after a major earthquake struck southwestern Haiti on Saturday, authorities said, reducing churches, hotels and homes to rubble in the latest tragedy to hit the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eight kilometres from the town of Petit-Trou-de-Nippes, about 150 km west of the capital Port-au-Prince, at a depth of 10 km, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said.
That made the temblor, which was felt as far away as Cuba and Jamaica, potentially bigger and shallower than the magnitude-7 earthquake that struck Haiti 11 years ago, killing an estimated 250,000 people in the poorest nation in the Americas.
This one — which occurred at about 8:30 a.m. local time — hit farther away from the capital, however. In Port-au-Prince, it was strongly felt but did not appear to have caused major damage, according to Reuters witnesses, meaning there will likely be fewer fatalities than the devastating 2010 disaster.
Still, Haiti’s Civil Protection service said the preliminary death toll already stood at 227, and Prime Minister Ariel Henry declared a month-long state of emergency.
The nearest big town that was hit was Les Cayes, where many buildings collapsed or suffered major damage, according to authorities, who said they were searching for survivors.
“I saw bodies being pulled out of the rubble, injured and perhaps dead people,” said Les Cayes resident Jean Marie Simon, 38, who was at the market when the earthquake struck and ran home to see if his family was safe. “I heard cries of pain everywhere I passed through.”
His wife and two-year-old child had been bathing and rushed out to the street, naked, just before the front of the house crumbled. Simon gave his wife his shirt and they took refuge in the courtyard of a church with other locals. His mother’s house had also collapsed.
“There are a lot of aftershocks, and every time there’s one, people run and shout,” he said. “My legs are still trembling.”
In Les Cayes, locals said water had briefly flooded the coastal town, causing panic amid fear of a tsunami, but it then appeared to retreat. Haitian media outlets reported some people along the coast had already fled to the mountains.
The U.S. Tsunami Warning System issued a tsunami warning after the quake, lifting it shortly after.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement on Twitter on Saturday, saying Canada is “standing ready to provide assistance in any way we can.” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said Canada is ready to provide consular assistance to Canadians in Haiti.
U.S. President Joe Biden authorized an immediate U.S. response to the earthquake and named Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, co-ordinator of the effort.
‘This country just never finds a break’
The earthquake comes just over a month after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, who had been ruling by decree, which deepened the country’s political turmoil.
Meanwhile, swaths of Haiti are facing growing hunger, and health-care services are overwhelmed by COVID-19. Access by road to the southern region, where the quake struck, has been restricted by gang control of key areas, raising questions over how aid will be delivered.
That region had only recently recovered from Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016, killing hundreds and causing widespread devastation. Haiti is now in the cone of tropical storm Grace, which could bring heavy rains early next week.
“This country just never finds a break! Each year of mismanagement did not hurt, but the cumulative effects made us vulnerable to everything,” Haitian entrepreneur Marc Alain Boucicault said on Twitter.
“Its going to take years to fix things, and we have not even started!”
In Port-au-Prince, residents traumatized by the 2010 quake rushed, screaming, into the streets and stayed there as the aftershocks rumbled on.
“In my neighbourhood, I heard people screaming. They were flying outside,” said Port-au-Prince resident Sephora Pierre Louis, adding she was still in a state of shock. “At least they know to go outside. In 2010, they didn’t know what to do. People are still outside in the street.”
The quake was felt as far as Cuba and Jamaica, although there were no reports of material damage, deaths or injuries there.
“Everyone is really afraid. It’s been years since such a big earthquake,” said Daniel Ross, a resident in the eastern Cuban city of Guantanamo.
He said his home stood firm but the furniture shook.
“I feel it, man. It wake me up. My roof kind of make some noise,” said Danny Bailey, 49, in Kingston.
The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre also reported a quake in the region, saying it was magnitude 7.6, while Cuba’s seismological centre said it registered a magnitude of 7.4.