Haiti quake survivors sought amid ‘unimaginable’ destruction

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Mexico City -- The capital of Haiti lay in ruins Wednesday, shattered by an earthquake it was not built to withstand. With most international aid yet to arrive, bodies lined the streets, the injured gathered at hospitals devoid of doctors or functioning equipment, swaths of the city were reduced to rubble and even the presidential palace -- long a symbol of whatever stability the country could muster -- was damaged and sagging.

Most telecommunications were down, making it next to impossible for the government and aid agencies to count the casualties or assess the extent of damage from the magnitude 7.0 quake that struck Tuesday afternoon.

President Rene Preval described the destruction as “unimaginable” and predicted that the death toll would reach into the thousands. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said a preliminary assessment led him to fear that the number of dead could be “well over 100,000.”

Rescuers, often equipped with little more than their hands, hunted for survivors amid a grim tableau of destruction. Entire hillsides of homes appeared to have tumbled, while in other areas structures stood unaffected next to piles of dusty debris. Some buildings lay in pancake-like concrete heaps.

Relief workers said it could take a day or two to know how many of Haiti’s 9 million residents need assistance.

Homeless or fearful survivors took shelter under tarps on the grounds outside the prime minister’s office and elsewhere across the capital. As night fell, crowds filled downtown streets. People sought open-air spots to spend the night, either because they were afraid to be indoors or had no home left.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is a place where misery is an everyday condition and disasters -- of both the natural and man-caused variety -- are not uncommon. At best, the government has made only halting progress toward improving the lives of its citizens. The quake, said to be the strongest in the country in 200 years, caused death and destruction of a whole new magnitude.

In a predominantly Catholic country that already relied heavily on United Nations relief, the dead were reported to include the archbishop of Port-au-Prince and at least 16 U.N. personnel, possibly including the head of the U.N. mission. Both the hotel that served as U.N. headquarters and the city’s main cathedral were heavily damaged, as were the Parliament building, schools, hospitals and other hotels.

The U.N. reported that the main prison also had collapsed and that inmates escaped.

Some looting was reported, and about 3,000 police officers and international peacekeepers were trying to maintain security.

U.S. officials said most of the damage appeared to be concentrated around Port-au-Prince, a teeming city of 2 million that sits like a hive of gray concrete that creeps up a mountainside rising out of the Caribbean. The homes are mostly made of cheap, porous concrete made with sand from nearby quarries.

In the aftermath of the quake, entire big-box apartment blocks had collapsed along roads carved into the hills. Rubble had blown out onto the roads. Next to the debris lay bodies, their faces dutifully covered by sheets.

On Martin Luther King Avenue, just past a sign reading, “Bienvenue a Port-au-Prince,” the slender legs of three young children poked out from under sheets. The bodies of three adults were strewn nearby.

At two badly damaged hospitals in the capital, there were virtually no doctors or medical workers in sight.

Outside St. Esprit Hospital, bodies lay on the street, including that of a woman whose white hair showed above the sheet covering her, with a small child next to her.

But behind the compound’s iron doors, the scene was worse: people dead and apparently dying on the ground as their relatives stood by helplessly, watching them. Some of the injured wept in pain; others lay silently.

One man dragged visitors to see his mother, who lay on her back wearing only a light yellow flowery robe. She was on the street just outside the hospital gate, one leg clearly broken.

“I don’t know what to do,” another man lamented as he dragged visitors over to look at his cousin, who lay on the ground covered only with a towel.

Many of those on the ground had been hooked up to IVs from the hospital, but apparently by their own relatives.

President Obama called the earthquake a “cruel and incomprehensible tragedy,” and promised that the U.S. would help in any way it could.

“This is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity we all share,” Obama said in televised remarks from the White House. “With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us, Haitians are our neighbors in the Americas and here at home.”

The U.S. military deployed a 30-member team to assess the damage and help manage the response. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters evacuated four severely injured U.S. Embassy employees to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said more than 100 of the estimated 45,000 Americans in Haiti had gathered at the airport to be evacuated. Officials said they had heard no reports so far of widespread casualties among U.S. citizens.

The United States also sent two 72-member urban search-and-rescue teams, including a specialized rescue team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. U.S. military aircraft began arriving Wednesday, and the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was due to reach Haiti today.

Officials also were planning to send an amphibious ship with 2,000 Marines, and have alerted a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina, about 2,500 soldiers, to prepare to help.

Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said the military’s immediate goals are to help restore telecommunications and get the airport up and running. The control tower was heavily damaged, and many commercial flights were canceled.

The L.A. County rescue team was to fly to Port-au- Prince on Wednesday night, officials said. It includes paramedics, structural engineers, search dogs, physicians and firefighters trained in using sophisticated equipment to find and free people trapped in collapsed buildings.

Kimberley Shoaf, associate director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, said residents of Haiti were likely to face an increased risk of dengue fever, malaria and measles. She also warned that the lack of healthcare could lead to complications among the injured.

Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, said that the “silver lining” was that the earthquake struck shortly before 5 p.m., when many office workers had gone home for the day.

The body of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was found in the ruins of his office, said the Rev. Pierre Le Beller of the St. Jacques Missionary Center in Landivisiau, France, who spoke to the Associated Press by telephone. He said that fellow missionaries in Haiti had told him that they had found Miot’s body.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the head of the U.N. mission in Port-au-Prince, Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi, was killed along with other U.N. personnel when the organization’s headquarters in the Christopher Hotel collapsed. Kouchner said the information came from the Haitian ambassador to France. U.N. officials said 100 to 150 U.N. personnel were missing, including Annabi.

Troops from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, mostly Brazilian, worked through the night to try to reach those trapped in the hotel. Rescuers recovered several bodies and seriously injured people.

The U.S. is expected to lead the international aid effort.

Obama said he had directed his administration “to respond with a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives.”

Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development will coordinate the response, Obama said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton canceled a trip to the Pacific and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put off plans to travel to Australia in order to deal with the quake’s aftermath.

“The situation is horrific and, unfortunately, we do not have the kind of information yet that gives us a road map as to how we’re going to be able to respond effectively, although we are moving a lot of our assets to position them to do so,” Clinton said before scrapping the planned visit to Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Former President Bill Clinton, who serves as the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, called on people around the world to donate money to relief organizations or the U.N.

“We do not have the logistical or organizational capacity right now to handle a lot of things, even if we need those things,” he said. “What we need now is food, water, supplies for first aid and shelter.”

Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Michael Muskal and Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles and Christi Parsons, Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington, as well as Times wire services, contributed to this report.