PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP/WJW) — A powerful magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck southwestern Haiti on Saturday, killing at least 304 people and injuring at least 1,800 others as buildings tumbled into rubble. Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he was rushing aid to areas where towns were destroyed and hospitals overwhelmed with incoming patients.
The epicenter of the quake was about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Geological Survey said, and widespread damage was reported.
Haiti’s civil protection agency said that the death toll stood at 304 and that search teams would be sent to the area. Rescue workers and bystanders were able to pull many people to safety from the rubble, the agency said Saturday afternoon on Twitter. It said injured people were still being brought to hospitals.
Henry declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country and said he would not ask for international help until the extent of the damages was known. He said some towns were almost completely razed and the government had people in the coastal town of Les Cayes to help plan and coordinate the response.
Henry said on Twitter that the “violent quake” had caused loss of life and damage in various parts of the country, and also appealed to Haitians to unify as they “confront this dramatic situation in which we’re living right now.”
“The most important thing is to recover as many survivors as possible under the rubble,” said Henry. “We have learned that the local hospitals, in particular that of Les Cayes, are overwhelmed with wounded, fractured people.”
He said the International Red Cross and hospitals in unaffected areas were helping to care for the injured, and appealed to Haitians for unity.
“The needs are enormous. We must take care of the injured and fractured, but also provide food, aid, temporary shelter and psychological support,” he said.
Later, 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 after as many as 300,000 were killed.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris received a briefing on Saturday morning about the Haiti earthquake, according to the White House. Biden authorized an immediate response and named USAID Administrator Samantha Power as the senior official coordinating the effort.
Biden released a statement regarding the disaster:
In what is already a challenging time for the people of Haiti, I am saddened by the devastating earthquake that occurred in Saint-Louis du Sud, Haiti this morning. We send our deepest condolences to all those who lost a loved one or saw their homes and businesses destroyed. I have authorized an immediate US response and named USAID Administrator Samantha Power as the senior US official to coordinate this effort.
Through USAID, we are supporting efforts to assess the damage and assist efforts to recover those who were injured and those who must now rebuild. The United States remains a close and enduring friend to the people of Haiti, and we will be there in the aftermath of this tragedy.President Joe Biden
Videos posted to social media showed collapsed buildings near the epicenter and people running into the streets.
People in Port-au-Prince felt the tremor and many rushed into the streets in fear, although there did not appear to be damage there.
Naomi Verneus, a 34-year-old resident of Port-au-Prince, said she was jolted awake by the earthquake and that her bed was shaking.
“I woke up and didn’t have time to put my shoes on. We lived the 2010 earthquake and all I could do was run. I later remembered my two kids and my mother were still inside. My neighbor went in and told them to get out. We ran to the street,” Verneus said.
The impoverished country, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes. It was struck by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake in 2018 that killed more than a dozen people, and a vastly larger magnitude 7.1 quake that damaged much of the capital in 2010 and killed an estimated 300,000 people.
The National Hurricane Center has forecasted that Tropical Storm Grace will reach Haiti late Monday night or early Tuesday morning.
The earthquake struck more than a month after President Jovenel Moïse was killed, sending the country into political chaos, and humanitarian aid groups said the earthquake will add to the suffering.
“We’re concerned that this earthquake is just one more crisis on top of what the country is already facing – including the worsening political stalemate after the president’s assassination, COVID and food insecurity,” said Jean-Wickens Merone, spokesman for World Vision Haiti.
Catholic priest Fredy Elie, who began working with the Mission in Haiti Congregation after the 2010 earthquake, told The Associated Press that access to the area is hindered by criminal gangs and was pleading for help.
“It’s time to open the road to those who want to help … They need help from all of us,” Elie said.