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Haiti was struck by a powerful earthquake on Saturday that buried people in the rubble of collapsed buildings and sent seawater rushing through streets, forcing residents to run for higher ground.
Authorities in the capital Port-au-Prince said at least 29 people were killed but the death toll was expected to rise.
“High casualties are probable and the disaster is likely widespread,” the US Geological Survey warned. “Past events with this alert level have required a national or international level response.”
The magnitude 7.2 quake struck at a depth of 10km, making it more powerful and shallower than the 7.0 quake that wrecked much of Port-au-Prince in 2010 and killed tens of thousands of people. The epicentre was 150km west of the capital near the town of Petit Trou de Nippes.
“Nippes and the surrounding area is rural with high rates of poverty and hunger,” said Cara Buck, acting country director in Haiti for the aid organisation Mercy Corps. “Phone and internet connectivity is spotty so we are having a hard time getting a full picture of the extent of damage and needs.”
One video purportedly recorded close to the epicentre showed two children, a girl and a boy, being pulled to safety from under a collapsed building.
Another showed residents running from their homes as water ran through the streets. A Tsunami warning was in place not only in Haiti but across the Caribbean. The quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and as far away as Cuba and Jamaica.
“Even in Port-au-Prince, where I am based, we felt strong tremors this morning,” said Lora Wuennenberg, interim country director for the UK-based charity CARE, adding that the quake was “likely to significantly worsen the situation for an already struggling nation”.
The earthquake, which struck early in the morning, comes five weeks after Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated and amid deepening political turmoil in the country, which is wracked by gang violence. It also struck just four days before tropical storm Grace is expected to make landfall in the country, and months before the country is due to hold elections.
“The earthquake hit a region that was already grappling with insecurity, an area of the country that cut off from the capital due to gang presence,” said Wazim Mowla, assistant director of the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington. “Now, it is likely that elections will be postponed once again and amid the widespread destruction.”
The country’s prime minister Ariel Henry, who has been in the post less than a month, declared a state of emergency while in Washington President Joe Biden ordered an immediate US response.
The quake rekindled memories of the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed around 200,000 people, left thousands more homeless and caused around $8bn in damage — equivalent to 120 per cent of GDP.
Haiti has struggled to recover since then and in 2016 was pounded by Hurricane Matthew — the worst storm to hit it in half a century. The southwestern town of Jérémie, which was close to the epicentre of Saturday’s quake, was one of the worst hit by the hurricane.
The country has also been plagued by man-made disasters. United Nations peacekeepers who were deployed to the island following the 2010 quake inadvertently sparked an outbreak of cholera by contaminating the country’s biggest river. The disease has killed at least 10,000 Haitians since then.