The 7.0-magnitude earthquake has levelled buildings and left people trapped under rubble in and around the capital Port-Au-Prince.
Haiti’s ambassador to the US says the earthquake has caused a “catastrophe of major proportions” and there are reports of mass panic, with screaming people rushing into the streets as buildings collapsed.
This morning a local doctor told AFP that he feared the death toll would be significant.
“When we get an idea of the toll it will be measured in the hundreds,” the doctor said.
The epicentre of the quake was located inland, just 16 kilometres from the capital, and was a shallow 10km deep, intensifying its impact, and significant casualties are expected.
Reuters reporter Joseph Guyler Delva says he saw dozens of people apparently dead or injured lying under rubble, which blocked roads.
“Everything started shaking, people were screaming, houses started collapsing… it’s total chaos,” he said
The national director of World Vision in Haiti, Frank Williams, is just outside Port-Au-Prince.
“People are screaming all around and walls from buildings and private residences have fallen into the streets, so that has pretty much blocked off most of the traffic,” he said.
“We have some aftershocks that we’ve experienced… people are wailing… [are] very frightened. Most of the people are out on the streets.”
The earthquake hit at 4.53pm (local time) in an extremely populated area. A US Geological Survey official told CNN that significant casualties were expected.
Haiti’s ambassador to the US Raymond Alcide Joseph told CNN he was heartbroken as he had just spoken by telephone with a senior presidential aide who described scenes of chaos and devastation.
“He had to stop his car just about half an hour ago, and take to the streets, start walking, but he said houses were crumbling on the right side of the street and the left side of the street,” Mr Joseph said.
“He does not know whether he would reach his home, not knowing what he would find, because he had a bridge to cross to get there.”
PALACE COLLAPSES, UN BUILDING DESTROYED
The presidential palace in Port-Au-Prince collapsed and many other public buildings across the capital were destroyed, Haitian television streaming online reported Tuesday.
“The presidential palace, the finance ministry, the ministry of public works, the ministry of communication and culture,” were all affected by the quake, a Haitian reporter said, adding that the parliament building and a cathedral in the capital were also crumbling.
A Miami Herald journalist says President Rene Preval has escaped.
The earthquake also destroyed the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission on the island, a local employee of the UN force said.
“There are numerous people underneath the rubble, both dead and injured,” the employee told AFP.
Save The Children senior emergency adviser Ian Rodgers was in the capital when it the quake hit.
“People are very distressed,” he said. “There is a lot of distress and wailing of people trying to find loved ones trapped under buildings.
“Houses have fallen down and slipped down hills. Port-Au-Prince is built on a hillside,” he said.
“All the roads are blocked, unfortunately now it is dark. All power seems to be out in Port-Au-Prince and some are using their own generators.”
Mr Rogers is worried about people’s safety.
“I can only imagine the response is going to be very difficult for the Haitian authorities,” he said. “But unfortunately as its dark, Haiti is going to face security issues.”
An AFP correspondent said the ground shook for more than a minute.
Another AFP correspondent in Petionville said one three-storey building was toppled, and a tractor was already at the scene trying to dig out victims as people fled onto the streets in panic. The up-scale area is home to many foreign diplomats and members of a major United Nations mission to the country.
“Just experienced a MAJOR earthquake here in Port au Prince – walls were falling down. – we are ALL fine – pray for those in the slums,” Twitter user Troy Livesay wrote this morning.
Other reports say at least one hospital has collapsed.
The USA says landline and mobile phone communications have been knocked out by the earthquake.
The shocks were felt at the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba but there have been no reports of any injuries outside Haiti.
US AID ON THE WAY
US President Barack Obama issued a statement saying the US “stood ready” to help the people of Haiti and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the US will provide both military and civilian aid.
The quake was followed by at least two weaker aftershocks.
A major earthquake of magnitude 7 or higher is capable of causing widespread and heavy damage.
A tsunami warning was issued but was later cancelled, but a small tsunami was measured.
Haiti, and the entire Caribbean, is in an area that is particularly prone to earthquakes because two fault lines meet in that areas side-by-side – making it a strike-slip fault.
This means the earth either side of the fault slides horizontally during a tremor, rather than buckling vertically.
These earthquakes are characterised by shaking and do not tend to result in tsunamis.
Because these faults are located on land, they tend to take place close to population centres, making them particularly devastating.
Dip-slip faults, the other faults around which earthquakes take place, tend to be found off-shore under the ocean. Therefore population areas are located further from these earthquakes.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.