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In Haiti, A Desperate Hunt For Survivors

Haitians made a frantic search for survivors Wednesday after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the capital of Port-au-Prince, even as rubble-filled streets quickly piled up with bodies.

Haitian President Rene Preval called it a catastrophe and said he believed the death toll stretched into the thousands, though no official accounting was yet available.

Visions of Chaos After The Quake

As the United States and other countries ramped up a massive international aid effort, officials on the ground in the desperately poor Caribbean island nation struggled to comprehend the full scope of the disaster.

"If I look beyond the walls of the U.N. compound, there are bodies on the road, there are destroyed buildings, there are crashed cars," David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, told NPR. "If you go out into the city, the situation just gets worse and worse."

The International Red Cross estimated that up to one-third of Haiti's 9 million residents may need emergency aid, although the worst damage was centered in the densely populated capital, home to at least 2 million people.

"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," Preval told the Miami Herald on Wednesday. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."

Even the main prison in the capital crumbled, "and there are reports of escaped inmates," U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said from the organization's humanitarian headquarters in Geneva.

Bracing for the casualties, relief groups scrambled to contact their staff members and arrange for international aid deliveries. The U.S. government mobilized aircraft, Coast Guard cutters and a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Haitian officials, clearly overwhelmed, offered shocking estimates of how high the death toll could eventually go. Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, told CNN that it could be "well over 100,000," while leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press that 500,000 people could be dead. Both acknowledged they have no way of knowing.

This image obtained from Twitter purportedly shows Haitians standing amid rubble in Port-au-Prince after a huge earthquake Tuesday.
Enlarge this image

Above: This image obtained from Twitter purportedly shows Haitians standing amid rubble in Port-au-Prince after a huge earthquake Tuesday.

"We don't yet have a complete estimate of how many people have lost their homes, let alone their lives," the U.N.'s Wimhurst said. "Numbers still can't be fathomed, but they're vast. The destruction is really extremely overwhelming."

In a bit of good news, the airport in Port-au-Prince was functioning, according to U.S. and U.N. officials, and aid flights had already landed Wednesday.

President Obama called the disaster "truly heart-wrenching" and promised a "swift, coordinated and aggressive effort" to save lives and deliver aid to Haiti.

"For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible," said Obama, who added that relief efforts would be "complex and challenging."

The first quake hit at 4:53 p.m. Tuesday, just as darkness was falling on Haiti. After a night punctuated by aftershocks, Haitians woke up to a capital city covered in dust and debris.

Residents piled bodies along the rubble-covered streets, covering the corpses with sheets. The body of Port-au-Prince's Roman Catholic archbishop, Joseph Serge Miot, was found in the ruins of his office.

Relief Efforts Under Way

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said relief efforts were in the earliest stages.

"Initial reconnaissance and aerial assessments have been undertaken," he said. "Buildings and infrastructure were heavily damaged throughout the capital. Basic services such as water and electricity have collapsed almost entirely. ... Medical facilities have been inundated with injured."

But efforts to treat the wounded will be hampered by the destruction. Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group, reported that all three of its health facilities were damaged so heavily that they are out of commission.

"The best we can offer now is first-aid care and stabilization," said Paul McPhun, part of the group's emergency management team in Port-au-Prince. "We don't have the infrastructure to support surgery right now."

At a destroyed four-story apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car trying to peer inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. The girl said her family was inside.

"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," Dr. Louis-Gerard Gilles, a former senator, said as he helped survivors. "Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together."

Magalie Boyer, a staffer for World Vision, an international aid group, was in the capital during the quake.

"Port-au Prince is a city of walls, and you know the walls came tumbling down around the World Vision office," she told NPR. "Cars were stuck and could not get anywhere. Trees fell. A couple of buildings collapsed. Roofs were no longer horizontal. There were extensive signs of damage."

The reports trickling in offered alarming hints about the extent of the damage to one of the world's poorest nations. Rickety shantytowns lay in ruins, while the ornate National Palace, one of the more substantial buildings in the capital, crumbled.

"There are people injured in the palace," Fritz Longchamp, the building's executive director, told the Miami Herald. "I'm calling for help and medical assistance for them."

Among the facilities being used to treat the injured was the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Julie Oliveri, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Blood Program, told NPR that the hospital put out an urgent request for blood products after some patients from a damaged Haitian hospital were brought to the naval facility.

Deaths, Damage At U.N. Mission

The headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission also collapsed. Fewer than five people have been confirmed killed there, although as many as 100 people are still believed to be missing in the rubble. Separate reports suggested that as many as a dozen peacekeepers were killed and scores were missing. Some U.N. troops, mostly from Brazil, frantically combed the wreckage looking for survivors, while others patrolled the city and began coordinating relief efforts.

"In Port-au-Prince, we have now 3,000 forces. They are there to secure the airport, the port and the main buildings, and [are] patrolling. That is already happening," U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said Wednesday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio Wednesday that he believed that the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, a Tunisian diplomat, was killed when the building collapsed. U.N. officials could not confirm reports that Annabi had died.

Elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, a young American aid worker was trapped for about 10 hours under the rubble of her mission house before she was rescued by her husband, who told CBS' The Early Show that he drove 100 miles to the capital to find her after he learned of the quake.

Frank Thorp said he dug for more than an hour to free his wife, Jillian, and a co-worker, from under about a foot of concrete.

The earthquake hit near the end of the regular workday. Centered only 10 miles away from the capital, it was the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti, according to Kristin Marano, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was a shallow quake, only about six miles deep. Thomas Jordan, head of the Southern California Earthquake Center, says the temblor started along a fault that lies between two giant tectonic plates: the Caribbean and North American plates.

U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince were still trying to get a handle on the scale of the disaster.

State Department officials said Wednesday that they have been able to account for all U.S. personnel except for one, although at least eight Americans were injured, including four who sustained serious injuries. The State Department also ordered the departure of about 80 nonessential embassy staffers and family members. An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 Americans live in Haiti, and the U.S. Embassy had no confirmed reports of any deaths.

Obama named U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah to coordinate American relief efforts. The first USAID team of experts arrived Wednesday afternoon. Search-and-rescue teams from Virginia, Florida and California were also en route.

Haiti will need all the help it can get. Most of Haiti's 9 million people are desperately poor, and the country has been wracked by years of political instability.

Decades of violence culminated in a bloody rebellion in 2004 that prompted the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force that now includes 7,000 troops and an additional 2,000 international police.

Crime has since decreased somewhat, owing to the presence of the U.N. troops and the rebuilding of the country's own police force.

But Haiti has limited capacity to address such a widespread disaster.

Byrs, the U.N. spokeswoman, said the agency's humanitarian office was working with independent aid agency Telecoms Sans Frontieres to get phone lines working again — a key element in organizing relief efforts.

A number of governments from Latin America to Europe and Asia pledged to send search and rescue teams and to deliver relief supplies. One of the first teams expected to arrive in Haiti comprises 37 search-and-rescue specialists from Iceland, along with 10 tons of rescue equipment.

Haitians living outside the country frantically tried to contact relatives on the island throughout the night.

Edwidge Danticat, an award-winning Haitian-American author, has been unable to contact relatives in Haiti. She sat with family and friends at her home in Miami, looking for news on the Internet and watching TV news reports.

"You want to go there, but you just have to wait," she said. "Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this."

NPR's Deborah Tedford contributed to this report, which includes material from NPR wire services.

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