“They are desperately in need of aid right now,” said Lucilien Joseph, 34, a Haitian national who has lived in Trinidad for the past six years. In an interview at Newsday’s office on Chacon Street, Port-of-Spain, Joseph said communication with Haiti and the outside world remained poor yesterday. But while he was unable to contact his family, he said he was able to contact a friend, security worker Wesver Dantes who was at the time in Port-au-Prince.
Joseph yesterday called Dantes on speaker-phone and translated from French as Newsday spoke with his friend.
“Right now, there is plenty of trouble,” Dantes said. “People are walking the streets holding their heads. They don’t know what to do. There is no help filtering down to the people. We need plenty of help here.”
Dantes described scenes of devastation around him. “So many people are dead. When I walked through Port-au-Prince there were dead people all over, in the rubble, on the ground. In the city there is no more National Palace or Justice Palace; they have been totally destroyed. There is nothing left,” he said.
Dantes’s description matched similar ones given by The Associated Press (AP) and The New York Times in reports which described thousands wailing as they lay trapped in the rubble or mourned dead loved ones. “The bodies of the dead were everywhere in Port-au-Prince,” according to an AP report. “Bodies of tiny children were piled next to schools. Bodies of women lay with stunned expressions frozen on the street as flies began to gather. Bodies of men were covered with plastic tarps or cotton sheets.”
“The wailing of survivors pierced the air in pockets of this devastated city on Wednesday,” read the first sentence of a report in The Times.
Haiti’s President Rene Preval yesterday estimated that thousands of people were killed in Tuesday afternoon’s magnitude 7.0 quake.
“I’ve no place to sleep tonight,” Preval told American cable news network CNN. “I don’t know where to go to sleep tonight.” In another interview, Preval told the Miami Herald, “Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”
The scope of the destruction prompted other officials to give even higher estimates. Haitian senator Youri Latortue told AP that 500,000 could be dead.
The scenes of carnage in Port-au-Prince contrasted with those in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad where the Government proceeded with the ceremonial opening of Parliament with full pomp and splendour. In addressing MPs yesterday morning at the Red House, Speaker Barry Sinanan called for prayers for the people of Haiti in their “hour of great distress”.
Prime Minister Patrick Manning, speaking to reporters as he left the event early, pledged $6.3 million in aid to Haiti immediately.
Association of Caribbean States (ACS) Secretary General Ambassador Luis Fernando Andrade Falla also urged countries to provide aid. At a press conference at ACS headquarters in St Clair, Port-of-Spain, he urged ACS member states, non-governmental organisations and private citizens to send aid to Haiti.
“They are asking us for hospital ships,” he said. “This is a tragedy the likes of which we have never seen...This is a regional challenge. We are now all brothers in this region. We are all Haitians at this time.”
While Haiti is a member of the ACS, the ACS has no office there and information out of Haiti was slim, Falla noted. At the same time, the internet proved a rich source for details of the tragedy as photographs and video slipped through to the outside world via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Locally, several initiatives were launched online by bloggers and NGOs who pointed members of the public to ways they could help. The international Red Cross said a third of Haiti’s nine million people may need emergency aid and that it would take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge, AP reported.
Even with aid on its way, aftershocks continued to rattle the capital of two million people as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing.
People pulled bodies from collapsed homes, covering them with sheets by the side of the road. Passers-by lifted the sheets to see if loved ones were underneath. Outside a crumbled building, the bodies of five children and three adults lay in a pile.
The prominent died along with the poor: the body of Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found in the ruins of his office, said the Rev Pierre Le Beller of the Saint Jacques Missionary Center in Landivisiau, France. He told AP by telephone that fellow missionaries in Haiti had told him they found Miot’s body.
The Senate president, Kelly Bastien, was among those trapped inside the Parliament building and by yesterday he was no longer responding to rescuer’s cries, officials said.
The quake had struck on Tuesday at 4.53 pm, centered 10 miles (15 kilometres) west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of only five miles (eight kilometres), the US Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake in Haiti since 1770.
Most Haitians are desperately poor, reeling from the effects of poverty and natural disasters. After years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of buildings were shoddily built and unsafe.
The quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and in eastern Cuba, but no major damage was reported in either place.
US President Barack Obama promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort, adding that the US commitment to its hemispheric neighbour will be unwavering.