PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -The death toll from a devastating earthquake in Haiti rose to 724 on Sunday with rescuers scrambling to find survivors buried under rumble and hospitals struggling to cope with thousands of injured, as a major storm barreled toward the Caribbean state.
The 7.2 magnitude quake on Saturday flattened hundreds of homes and buildings in a Caribbean nation which is still clawing its way back from another major temblor here 11 years ago and reeling from the assassination of its president last month.
Southwestern Haiti bore the brunt of the blow, especially in the region in and around the city of Les Cayes. Jerry Chandler, head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, said the toll from the disaster had climbed to 724, while 2,800 people were injured.
Churches, hotels, hospitals and schools were badly damaged or destroyed, while the walls of a prison were rent open by the violent shudders that convulsed Haiti.
The challenge facing Haiti has been exacerbated by the pandemic, economic hardship aggravated by fierce gang violence, and a political crisis that has engulfed the troubled nation after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7.
“We must work together to provide rapid and effective responses to this extremely serious situation,” said Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had flown to Les Cayes.
The government also appealed to aid organizations against setting up makeshift camps and urged them to work through the planning ministry, an apparent attempt to avoid the mistakes made following the devastating 2010 earthquake here that killed tens of thousands of people.
At Port-au-Prince airport, international aid workers, doctors and rescue workers waited to board flights to Les Cayes.
Floris Nesi, a doctor heading to help the relief efforts, said the tragedy has hit Haitians at a time of economic and political turmoil, making many of them even more vulnerable than in 2010.
People walk past a house destroyed following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti August 14, 2021. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol
“So we need to assist people more than after the previous earthquake,” he told Reuters in the airport.
The rescue efforts are set to be made more complicated by the arrival of Tropical Storm Grace, which is set to lash Haiti with heavy rainfall on Monday. Some parts of Haiti are also at risk of flash floods, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis urged nations to send quick aid. “May solidarity from everyone lighten the consequences of the tragedy,” he told pilgrims and tourists at his Sunday blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
The United States sent vital supplies and deployed a 65-person urban search-and-rescue team with specialized equipment, said Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
Some Haitians spent Saturday night sleeping in the open, traumatized by memories of the magnitude 7 quake in 2010 that struck far closer to the sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince.
Footage of Saturday’s aftermath posted on social media showed residents reaching into narrow openings in piles of fallen masonry to pull shocked and distraught people from the debris of walls and roofs that had crumbled around them.
Access to the worst-hit areas was complicated by a deterioration in law and order that has left key access roads in parts of Haiti in the hands of gangs, although unconfirmed reports on social media suggested they would let aid pass.
Following Moise’s assassination, which authorities have alleged was carried out by a group of largely Colombian mercenaries and Haitian accomplices, Prime Minister Henry said officials would aim to hold elections for a new president as soon as possible.
However, reports earlier this week suggested that the vote initially earmarked for September would not take place until November. The chaos unleashed here by Saturday’s disaster is likely to make the task of holding prompt elections harder still.
TREMORS IN THE REGION
The quake sent tremors as far as Jamaica and Cuba, though no major damage was reported there.
U.S. President Joe Biden and countries in the region quickly offered help to Haiti.
Haiti has long been politically unstable and Haitians have also suffered from problems stemming from international aid efforts and peace-keeping deployments during the past decade.
A sexual misconduct scandal centering on Oxfam International blighted the record of charity workers in Haiti, while a cholera outbreak linked to U.N. peacekeepers led to thousands of deaths.
Writing on Twitter tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father’s family are from Haiti, expressed her sorrow about the quake, saying she would give all the prize money she won at a tournament next week to the relief efforts.
“I know our ancestors blood is strong,” she said, “we’ll keep rising.”
Additional reporting by Kate Chappell in Kingston, Sarah Marsh in Havana and Philip PullellaWriting by Dave GrahamEditing by Daniel Flynn, Aurora Ellis and Chizu Nomiyama