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Thousands Feared Dead as World Rushes to Respond to Haiti Disaster

BY Larisa Epatko  January 13, 2010 at 4:55 PM EDT

Port-au-Prince after Jan. 12 earthquake. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

A 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince — a city of 2 million people — at 4:53 p.m. local time Tuesday.

President Rene Preval told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the scene was “unimaginable.”

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed,” he said. “There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

News agencies reported that bodies were being piled along streets, as survivors sought medical attention and help for missing family members. The presidential palace also collapsed, along with the Hotel Christopher, which houses U.N. headquarters in Haiti. The United Nations reported that 100 of its personnel were missing in the ruins.

On Wednesday afternoon, Reuters quoted Preval as confirming that U.N. mission chief Hedi Annabi was among those killed in the disaster, though other media outlets including the Associated Press reported that he was still missing.

 

“Ambassador Annabi died. We send our sympathy and condolences to all the international community,” Preval told journalists in Port-au-Prince.

 

Meanwhile, some aid organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, were finding themselves without functioning facilities.

Paul McPhun of Doctors Without Borders’ emergency management in Haiti, based in Toronto, told reporters the organization’s three medical centers had either collapsed or were so structurally damaged they couldn’t be used, so the group was working to set up mobile units to address the wounded.

“The reality of what we’re seeing is severe traumas — head wounds, crushed limbs — severe problems that cannot be dealt with at the level of care we currently have available with no infrastructure really to support it,” he said. “So our major priority and focus is to re-establish as soon as possible a secondary level of surgical capacity in the country.”

With cell phone services down, it was difficult to keep track of the medical teams and report on their progress, said McPhun. Moving around the country also remained a challenge. Many roads were blocked with debris, and even those that weren’t, people were sleeping on the roads making them impassable, he added.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, was working through the night to reach people trapped under buildings, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The 3,000-strong contingent in and around Port-au-Prince also was working to keep order and help with aid efforts.

The U.N. was coordinating relief efforts among the U.S. and Haitian governments, along with those of other countries, said Ban. “In these times of difficulties, I would appeal again to the international community for urgent further assistance and urgent further help for them,” he said.

President Barack Obama also directed U.S. agencies to undertake a “swift, coordinated” effort to provide assistance to Haiti. He promised the Caribbean nation America’s “unwavering support”.

The U.S. military planned to send Coast Guard and other ships to Haiti’s shores, including the Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, to provide helicopters, said U.S. Southern Command Gen. Douglas Fraser.

The U.S. Agency for International Development was dispatching a Disaster Assistance Response Team to Haiti and summoning its two partner search and rescue teams from Fairfax, Va., and Los Angeles.

The No. 1 priority for the first 72 hours after the earthquake was to find people in need of rescue, according to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

“We will have quite a lot of work to do in days and weeks ahead,” he said.