Haiti president describes `unimaginable' catastrophe after earthquake
By JACQUELINE CHARLES, CAROL ROSENBERG, JEAN-CYRIL PRESSOIR AND LUISA YANEZjcharles@MiamiHerald.com
Haitian President René Préval issued an urgent appeal for his earthquake-shattered nation Wednesday, saying he had been stepping over dead bodies and hearing the cries of those trapped under the rubble of the national Parliament.
The president, in his first interview since the earthquake, said the country was destroyed and he believed there were thousands of people dead but was reluctant to provide a number.
``We have to do an evaluation,'' Préval said, describing the scene as ``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.'' Among those trapped inside the Parliament building but still alive was the president of the Haitian Senate, Kely Bastien.
Préval said he had traveled through several neighborhoods and seen the damage. ``All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe,'' he said.
According to media reports, survivors were digging through the rubble and stacking bodies along the streets of Port-au-Prince , Haiti ' capital, after the powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the island nation Tuesday afternoon. The earthquake has left the nation virtually isolated with countless crumbled buildings, including the historic National Palace .
Préval and first lady Elisabeth Préval were not in the palace at the time of the quake.
Préval said he he has not slept since the earthquake. Other people slept in the streets because they were afraid to sleep in their homes, he said.
``This is a catastrophe,'' the first lady said. ``I'm stepping over dead bodies. A lot of people are buried under buildings. The general hospital has collapsed. We need support. We need help. We need engineers.''
Sen. Joseph Lambert also described the scene. Standing outside the Parliament building, he said: ``Imagine schools, hospitals, government buildings all destroyed.''
When asked about the prospect of Haiti rebuilding, Lambert said, ``It's our country. We have no other choice. It's a catastrophe but we have no other choice but to rebuild.'' He expressed hope the country's international partners will help in rebuilding.
While official details about the scope of the damage were scarce, eye-witness accounts and media reports painted a picture of wide-spread destruction that is likely to leave hundreds, if not thousands, dead.
The United Nations said that its five-story headquarters had collapsed and a large number of personnel remain unaccounted.
At least eight Chinese and three Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers died in the earthquake, the Associated Press reported, citing Chinese and Jordanian press accounts.
Sources told The Miami Herald late Tuesday that Hédi Annabi, head of the U.N. stabilization force, and his deputy were among the missing.
While there were few official estimates, the number of dead and injured is likely to soar Wednesday as the extent of the damage becomes clear.
A hospital was reported to have collapsed and people were heard screaming for help, and the World Bank offices in Petionville were also destroyed, but most of the staff were safely accounted for, the organization said. Portions of the National Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince had crumbled.
In New York , the U.N. said in a 9:30 p.m. statement that ``a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for'' and that U.N. peacekeeping forces headquarters suffered heavy damages. Part of the road to Canape Vert, a suburb of the capital city of Port-au-Prince , has collapsed, along with houses perched in the mountains of Petionville, where the quake was centered. Petionville is a suburb about 10 miles from downtown Port-au-Prince .
At least 20 aftershocks followed the 4:53 p.m. earthquake, according to NOAA, and a tsunami alert was briefly issued for the region and canceled. A blanket of dust completely covered the city for about 10 minutes, USAID contract employee Mike Godfrey told CNN from Port-au-Prince .
``At this point I'm frustrated trying to find colleagues and staff,'' Godfrey said. ``Phones are not working. . . . I see some traffic, a little traffic on some of the routes,'' he said.
Eyewitness accounts of the destruction were hard to come by, some came via Twitter, Facebook and Skype. Richard Morse, owner of the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince , sent tweets to the outside world.
``Just about all the lights are out in Port au Prince,'' he said. ``People still screaming but the noise is dying as darkness sets. Lots of rumors about which buildings were toppled. The Castel Haiti behind the Oloffson is a pile of rubble. It was eight stories high. Our guests are sitting out in the driveway.''
Women covered in dust crawled from the rubble wailing as others wandered through the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares late into the night singing hymns. Many gravely injured people still sat in the streets early Wednesday, pleading for doctors. With almost no emergency services to speak of, the survivors had few other options.
Jarrod Seth of Seattle , who had traveled to Haiti with his wife, Sena, to adopt two children, had just checked in at the Port-au-Prince airport when the quake struck.
``Everything was chaotic,'' Seth said of the scene after he and his wife arrived at Miami International Airport Tuesday night. ``People were falling all over each other, ceiling tiles came down, windows crashed. It was the scariest thing.''
Thousands of buildings were damaged and destroyed throughout the city, and for hours after the quake the air was filled with a choking dust from the debris of fallen buildings.
The scope of the disaster remained unclear, and even a rough estimate of the number of casualties was impossible. But it was clear from a tour of the capital that tens of thousands of people had lost their homes and that many had perished.
Haitian businessman Georges Sassine, who was in Washington , D.C. , spoke to his wife minutes after the quake.
``She said, suddenly her car started shaking, and she saw houses crumbling and she could not understand what was happening,'' he said.
Antwan Edmund, former head of the Caribbean-Central American Action advocacy group, said he was ``sitting in Port-au-Prince watching the mountain crumble.''
Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti 's ambassador to the United States , said the quake has crippled his country.
``I spoke to a government official on the island who I reached on his cellphone and he told me: `Tell the world this is a catastrophe of major proportions,' '' he said Tuesday.
``My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake,'' President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday. ``We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti .''
Former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti , issued a statement offering assistance.
``My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti . My U.N. office and the rest of the U.N. system are monitoring the situation, and we are committed to do whatever we can to assist the people of Haiti in their relief, rebuilding and recovery efforts,'' he said.
In Honolulu , Hawaii , Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said America 's thoughts were ``with the people of Haiti .''
And help was on the way. The U.S. Agency for International Development is dispatching a Disaster Assistance Response Team and has activated its partners, the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team. The USAR teams will be composed of up to 72 personnel, six search and rescue canines and up to 48 tons of rescue equipment.
The USAR team will be accompanied by USAID disaster experts who will assist with assessments of the situation.
``This is a tragic situation and we will work alongside the Haitian government to provide immediate assistance in the rescue effort,'' said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
``On behalf of the American people, I wish to convey our sympathy, thoughts and prayers to the people of Haiti who have been affected by this devastating earthquake.''
U.S. Coast Guard officials in Miami mobilized four cutters from the region and one aircraft to positions in close proximity to Haiti to render humanitarian assistance as needed.
In Tallahassee , Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Haiti was one of South Florida 's ``closest neighbors.''
`` Florida stands ready to offer assistance to those affected by Tuesday's devastating earthquake. The Division of Emergency Management has notified the United States Department of State that we are ready to assist in every way possible,'' he said.
In Miami , a prayer service was planned for quake victims at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Mary, 7525 NW Second Ave. , and local aid efforts were starting to form.
The University of Miami began assembling an emergency response team to use a private plane to fly to Haiti , said Michel Dodard, an assistant professor and member of the school's medical and community development program in Haiti .
The moment he heard about the earthquake, Dodard contacted his two brothers who live there, one in Petionville -- the center of the quake.
``Clearly, what they are describing is a dreadful situation,'' Dodard said. `` Haiti has a very fragile disaster relief to begin with and much of the construction is extremely haphazard. You see shantytowns there, and they collapse sometimes during a tropical storm -- not even a hurricane.''
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: ``Of one thing you can be sure: Haiti is not alone. The U.S. will move hand in hand with the people of Haiti to swiftly respond to and recover from this tragedy.
``I call on all responsible nations to work together to implement a response that is immediate, targeted, coordinated, and resilient.''
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who represent parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, said: ``I am monitoring the situation very closely and am prepared to do whatever it takes to save lives and bring swift disaster relief to Haiti and the Haitian people at this time. I ask that all Americans please keep the Haitian people and all victims of this disaster in their thoughts and prayers.''
From Broward , U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who was in Haiti in June, said she was ``deeply saddened'' by the news.
``I know only too well how much this earthquake will add to the already immense obstacles facing the Haitian people,'' she said, adding that she would work with colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration to provide aid to Haiti.
The American Red Cross was poised to move aid from a warehouse in Panama -- blankets, kitchen sets and water containers for about 5,000 families -- as soon as a flight or means of delivery could be found, Eric Porterfield said in Washington .
Field reports, he said, indicated ``lots of damage and lots of aftershocks.''
In addition, the American Red Cross had already released $200,000 to its counterpart Haitian Red Cross.
South Florida Haitians dialed friends and relatives in the island nation -- to no avail. All connections were cut.
``My mother just went to Haiti on Friday and I'm terrified . . . '' said Gepsie Metellus, a Haitian community leader.
Royal Caribbean, which operates a private cruise facility at Labadee , Haiti , had a ship scheduled to call there Tuesday but canceled early in the day due to bad weather, said Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez. The ship, Freedom of the Seas, opted to continue on to its next scheduled port at Ocho Rios , Jamaica , she said.
Royal Caribbean 's $55 million Labadee facility didn't report any damage from the earthquake.
Miami Herald staff writers Nancy San Martin, Lesley Clark, Trenton Daniel, Frances Robles, Martha Brannigan, Jim Wyss, Robert Samuels, Nadege Charles, Mary Ellen Klas and Herald special correspondent Stewart Stogel contributed to this report, which was supplemented by wire services.