Haiti Braces for Massive Casualties in Aftermath of Earthquake

BY Jason M. Breslow  January 13, 2010 at 8:40 AM EST

Haiti is bracing for massive casualties Wednesday morning as international aid groups scramble to piece together a response to the devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck the island nation late Tuesday afternoon.

The quake, the worst to hit Haiti in more than 200 years, has leveled countless homes and buildings across the island, including the national palace, the headquarters of the United Nations mission and a major hospital in the capital Port-au-Prince. The Red Cross estimates as many as 3 million people have been affected by the disaster, but warned it would take 24 to 48 hours before a clear picture of the destruction emerges.

“Clearly, there’s going to be serious loss of life in this,” Philip J. Crowley, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, told reporters.

U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon has scheduled an 8:30 a.m. news conference to outline a response to the earthquake, and in a statement, President Barack Obama said, “We stand ready to assist the people of Haiti.” Already, the United States has mobilized Coast Guard cutters and aircraft to be on standby to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Plenty of obstacles could hamper the relief effort, however. As of early Wednesday morning, phone lines and electricity across Haiti remained down. The death toll is also likely to be exacerbated by the lack of zoning, building codes and emergency preparedness in a nation with a notoriously weak central government, Francis Ghesquiere, the chief disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank, told the Wall Street Journal.

Initial media reports out this morning paint a portrait of chaos across Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the quake. In an e-mail obtained by the New York Times, Louise Ivers, the clinical director of the aid group Partners in Health, wrote to colleagues: “Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS.”

Rachmani Domersant, an operations manager with the charity Food for the Poor, told Reuters, “You have thousands of people sitting in the streets with nowhere to go…. People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights. I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement.”

Numerous outlets have photo gallery’s of the devastation, including the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and the Washington Post. A note of warning: Many images are graphic.

We’ll be following the news from Haiti throughout the day here at the Rundown and on tonight’s PBS NewsHour. Stay tuned.