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As death toll passes 700, rescue crews face difficult challenges after Haiti earthquake

A damaged building after the earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Aug. 15, 2021. (Katherine Hernandez/Xinhua via ZUMA Press/TNS)

More than 700 people have lost their lives and officials fear the number of dead will rise from the major earthquake that struck southwestern Haiti, a region experiencing common aftershocks following Saturday’s quake that will likely hinder search and rescue teams along with humanitarian relief efforts.

Concerned about potential chaos, Haiti’s prime minister said all donations from foreign countries and relief organizations must be delivered to the island’s government so it can coordinate the distribution of makeshift shelters, food and medicine to the areas most affected by the devastating quake.

The edict, issued by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, puts Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection in charge of all donations. He said the goal is to limit the mismanagement of donations that took place after Hurricane Matthew struck five years ago, when the distribution of aid to storm-ravaged communities was uneven. Some areas received a lot of donations, while others were ignored, leading to outbreaks of violence.

On Sunday, foreign assistance from the U.S. government, United Nations and others was already starting to arrive in Haiti. The U.S. Agency for International Development deployed an urban search and rescue team to join Haiti’s disaster response effort. The 65-person deployment brought 52,000 pounds of specialized tools, equipment and medical supplies to assist in search operations, officials said.

The quake toppled buildings, homes and historical cathedrals in a nation that is still struggling to recover from a devastating quake that left more than 300,000 dead over a decade ago and from recent political instability after a presidential assassination last month.

At least 724 people have died and thousands of others have been injured, according to Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, which manages the island nation’s disaster relief. But the U.S. Geological Survey, issuing a “red alert” for the disaster, estimated fatalities could reach into the thousands.

“High casualties and extensive damage are probable and the disaster is likely widespread. Past red alerts have required a national or international response,” the USGS said.

The quake, registered as a magnitude 7.2, forced government officials, humanitarian workers and weary Haitian citizens to dig through rubble for survivors, find water and food for the hungry and gauge the scope of yet another large-scale disaster — all with Tropical Storm Grace headed toward the country in the next few days.

The prime minister’s office said emergency responders had been activated and were assessing the damages. But even as damage assessments were ramping up, the country was still seeing a string of smaller aftershocks. They are a common occurrence following big earthquakes but unnerving for residents and potentially dangerous in areas with heavily damaged structures.

The damage was centered along the Tiburon, the country’s southwestern peninsula. It’s less densely populated than the capital, but images posted on social media suggested there will be many more casualties. Some showed collapsed homes and the Catholic cathedral turned to rubble in Les Anglais, which is part of Jeremie in the Grand Anse region.

Making emergency response even more complicated is that the four regions struck by the quake have been cut off by violent armed gang warfare at the southern entrance of Haiti’s capital. Since June 1, the gang clashes have forced the displacement of over 16,000 Haitians from their homes in the poor neighborhood of Martissant.

Haitian Sen. Joseph Lambert, who represents the Southwestern region, said “there has been great difficulty for people to cross Martissant to provide aid … because Martissant today is under the control of gangs.” He said Haiti’s government must deploy the national police and army “to take control of the area” so that donations can be transported to the quake zone immediately.

Lambert said the southwestern area’s largest city, Les Cayes, was pummeled by the quake, leaving many people dead or homeless.

“It’s an area that’s been totally destroyed,” Lambert told the Miami Herald. “Even the road leading to Jeremie has been affected” because boulders rolled down from the mountains and cut off access.

Claude Prepetit, Haiti’s chief seismologist, said the damage might not be as widespread as the 2010 quake, but warned aftershocks would still topple buildings. ”This is why we are asking people not to run back into buildings,” Prepetit said. “Wait on the evaluations.”

”For me, this was a surprise and it shows us that an earthquake is something that is totally unpredictable,” he said. “There was nothing to say that this [Saturday] morning there would have been an earthquake and it would had occurred in this area.”

If that wasn’t enough, Haiti is in the cone for Tropical Storm Grace, which could be approaching by late Monday. There’s great concern — not because of wind but because of potentially significant rainfall that could create mud and further destabilize buildings. In turn, that might slow rescue crews.

“This is one of the most untimely things that can happen when it comes to Haiti,” said Skyler Badenoch, CEO of Hope for Haiti, a local charity that employs about 60 people and provides health services.

“There is a tremendous amount of worry for the safety of our team and their families and what this means for the country and the region,” Badenoch said. “The first thing we are laser focused on is trying to contact everybody on the phone, to hear their voice and make sure they are OK. We know there is a lot of emotional stress when it comes to earthquakes.”

The USGS placed the quake magnitude at 7.2, as did the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, with the epicenter about 75 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince. If verified, it would make the seismic event stronger than the 7.0 quake that left much of the city in ruins in 2010. Tremors were felt all the way in Jamaica.

Haiti has two prominent fault zones. The Saturday morning earthquake happened over the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, where the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in 2010.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Dear lord, not another hit,’” said Florida International University professor Richard Olson, who studies the politics of disasters. “We’re in the middle of hurricane season. They haven’t ever really recovered from [the] 2010 event, and then the assassination and political instability that surrounds that. I’m almost afraid of anything else that can go wrong.”

In Les Cayes, a port town on the peninsula, the 40-unit Hotel Le Manguier collapsed, causing “several deaths,” according to Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s disaster response. “There are a lot of houses, a lot of structures that have been damaged; a lot of buildings have collapsed,” he said. “Efforts are being made to remove people … aid is being given in certain medical centers.”

Officials confirmed Haitian news reports that former Haitian senator and Les Cayes Mayor Gabriel Fortuné, who owned the hotel, was found dead in the rubble.

“Up to now, they are removing dead bodies” from the hotel, Sen. Lambert told the Herald.

In Jeremie, the main public hospital was filled to capacity with people with broken limbs, said Ricardo Chery, a local journalist. In the center of Beaumont, a nearby rural community, eight deaths were reported. “In one house there are three children who died together. In my presence they entered with 20 corpses. There is no more space.”

Echoes of 2010

Jean Ronald Jocelyn, who lives in the city of Les Cayes and works for the charity Hope for Haiti as its education program director, said he was still in bed when the ground started to shake. “I really didn’t understand what was happening,” he said. “I heard a lot of noise outside. I heard people crying outside and the house was shaking.”

For Jocelyn, the terror was unlike even the 2010 quake. “In the south we are not used to big tremors like this,” he said.

In a video widely shared on Haitian social media networks, an unidentified man said he was out exercising when he felt the ground rattle. In the video, dust clouds and rubble overtake the streets of the southwestern Haitian city.

“A huge earthquake has just hit Aux Cayes,” the man said in Creole, comparing the destruction to the disaster of Jan. 12, 2010. “For what I am seeing, it is the equivalent.”

For those affected, the experience of yet another major earthquake was terrifying. Former Haiti Prime Minister Rosny Smarth, who lives in Cavaillon in the south, said he was at home when he felt the ground rumbling.

“I ran out with my brother,” said Smarth, who retired to the region from Port-au-Prince last year. “A lot of homes in Cavaillon have been destroyed.”

“A lot of houses have been destroyed, a lot of people are injured and were taken to the hospital,” Valince Georges posted on Facebook with a photo of a destroyed two-story house. “A lot of aftershocks.”

International humanitarian organizations immediately responded with offers to help as did the Biden administration, which authorized USAID Administrator Samantha Power as the senior U.S. official to coordinate this effort. In a statement Saturday afternoon, Biden vowed to help “those who must now rebuild.”

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “We send our deepest condolences to all those who lost a loved one or saw their homes and businesses destroyed.”

History of disasters

The catastrophic 2010 earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, killed more than 300,000 people and destroyed the homes of 1.5 million people. It also left 1.5 million others injured. The quake collapsed over 100,000 structures in the Caribbean nation, which sits in an active seismic zone.

The nation, ranked among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, has a long history of deadly natural disasters, even before the 2010 earthquake. Since 2000 alone, the country had been raked by hurricanes. In 2004, Jeanne triggered massive flooding that killed over 3,000 people, mostly in the town of Gonaives. Heavy rain from four hurricanes in 2008 caused widespread flooding and crippled vital agricultural regions.

The quake hit hard the South and Grand Anse provinces on Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, a region also decimated by Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm, in 2016. The hurricane killed over 500 people and displaced thousands while devastating infrastructure and crops.

“We are deeply concerned about the devastation that this earthquake causes in a country already hit by extreme poverty, social and political unrest,” said Marcelo Viscarra, the national director for Haiti for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group that said it was positioning supplies to be able to help 6,000 people.

Political instability also has hampered recovery — with Haiti thrown into a deep crisis of volatility since last month when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. His July 7 murder inside his private residence remains unsolved, even though police have arrested over 40 persons. On Friday, the judge put in charge of further investigating the assassination plot and bringing charges against those arrested withdrew, citing concerns for his safety and a lack of security.

The Saturday morning earthquake happened over the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, where the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in 2010.

“It is an event that is possibly related to the event of more than 10 years ago,” said Victor Huérfano, director of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network. “It’s the same fault.”

The Puerto Rico Seismic Network continues to study the event and monitor the region for aftershocks.

“The event was so strong, that still hours later, there are seismic signals arriving,” he said.

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(McClatchy senior national security and White House Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.)

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©2021 Miami Herald

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