PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A magnitude 7.2 earthquake violently shook Haiti on Saturday morning, a devastating blow to an impoverished country reeling from a presidential assassination last month and still recovering from a disastrous quake more than 11 years ago.
The quake overwhelmed hospitals, flattened buildings and trapped people under rubble in at least two cities in the western part of the country’s southern peninsula. At least 304 people were killed and more than 1,800 injured, according to Jerry Chandler, the director general of the Civil Protection Agency. An untold number were missing.
“The streets are filled with screaming,” said Archdeacon Abiade Lozama, head of an Episcopal church in Les Cayes, one of the afflicted cities. “People are searching, for loved ones or resources, medical help, water. ”
The disaster could hardly have come at a worse time for the nation of 11 million, which has been in the throes of a political crisis since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7.
The unsolved assassination, a leadership vacuum, severe poverty and systematic gang violence in parts of Haiti have left the government dysfunctional and ill prepared for a natural calamity.
Much of the initial information about the quake came via social media postings and phone because of the security dangers in traveling to the affected area, which is at least four hours away by road from Port-au-Prince, the capital.
The United States Geological Survey said the quake struck five miles from the town of Petit Trou de Nippes in the western part of the country, about 80 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Seismologists said it had a depth of seven miles and was felt as far away as 200 miles in Jamaica.
The U.S.G.S. said it was a magnitude 7.2 quake, more powerful than the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti in 2010, which killed nearly a quarter-million people.
The Saturday quake struck in a less densely populated area of the country, but it was impossible to assess the full scope of casualties. Haiti’s embassy in the United States said in a statement that “the Haitian Government believes high casualties are probable given the earthquake’s magnitude.”
The Biden administration, the United Nations and private relief agencies that operate in Haiti promised urgent help.
At least two cities reported major devastation: Les Cayes and Jeremie. Phone lines were down in Petit Trou de Nippes, the epicenter of the quake, and no news emerged immediately from that city, leaving Haitian officials to fear for the worst. A landslide, triggered by the quake, cut off access to the road to Jeremie.
Doctors said the two main hospitals in Les Cayes and the main hospital in Jeremie had been overwhelmed.
“Many houses fell. Many people are trapped under the rubble,” said Widchell Augustin, 35, from Les Cayes, where he lives.
Videos emerged of people still in their pajamas or bath towels, out in the street seeking refuge from their violently trembling homes. Entire three-story buildings were flattened to eye-level; another video showed a group of men sifting through rubble and trying to remove debris to extract someone stuck underneath.
Dr. James Pierre, 38, a surgeon working at the general hospital of Les Cayes, also known as the Hospital Immaculée Conception, said the hospital was in need of the most basic supplies, including surgical gloves and intravenous needles. He added that he may be the only surgeon currently operating in Les Cayes, as many of his colleagues returned to Haiti’s capital for the weekend on Friday.
He also said that a building housing medical students, hospital interns and two doctors had collapsed, trapping those who were most needed to provide aid.
Gabriel Fortuné, a powerful local politician and former mayor of Les Cayes, was among those killed when the hotel he owned collapsed during the quake, according to a local journalist who knew him, Jude Bonhomme.
The earthquake that struck Haiti on Saturday morning occurred on the same system of faults as the one that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, in January 2010. And the previous quake almost certainly made this one more likely to occur.
Both quakes struck on an east-west fault line at the convergence of two tectonic plates, large segments of the Earth’s crust that slowly move in relationship to each other. At this fault line, called the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, the Caribbean plate and the North American plate move laterally, or side by side, at a rate of about a quarter of an inch a year.
The 2010 quake was centered about 30 miles west of Port-au-Prince. The quake on Saturday was about 50 miles further west.
Susan E. Hough, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey who studied the 2010 earthquake, said there was no doubt that it and the one Saturday were linked.
“It’s well established that you do have this domino concept,” she said, where the energy released by one earthquake alters the stress patterns elsewhere along the fault line. “But we don’t have a crystal ball that tells us which domino is going to fall next.”
Dr. Hough said seismologists had been concerned about a region of the fault zone to the east, closer to the 2010 rupture site. “Now we’ve seen the segment to the west rupture,” she said.
She said that the fault ruptured both vertically and laterally. Preliminary analyses suggested that the fault ruptured to the west, which would mean that most of the energy was directed away from Port-au-Prince and toward the more sparsely populated region along the Tiburon peninsula. If that’s the case, then most of the aftershocks that inevitably follow a large earthquake would most likely occur to the west as well.
“To the extent that anything could be good news for Haiti, those are good signs,” Dr. Hough said.
At a magnitude of 7.2, Saturday’s quake released about twice as much energy as the one in 2010, which was a magnitude-7.0 quake. That quake killed more than 200,000 people.
Damage and casualties from quakes depend on many factors besides magnitude. The depth and location of the rupture, the time it occurred and the quality of construction all can play major roles. In the 2010 earthquake, shoddy construction — especially poorly built masonry buildings — was blamed for many of the deaths and injuries.
The fault zone extends west to Jamaica, which is also at risk of major earthquakes. In addition to the 2010 quake, the fault zone was most likely the source of four major earthquakes in the 18th and 19th centuries, including ones that leveled Port-au-Prince in 1751 and again in 1770.
As Haiti reeled from a devastating earthquake on Saturday, the threat of another natural disaster loomed over the island. Tropical Storm Grace, which formed in the eastern Caribbean the same morning, was on a path toward Haiti, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The storm was projected to pass over or near Haiti on Monday, the center said in an update on Saturday afternoon, adding that people on the island should monitor the path of Grace, and that tropical storm warnings for Haiti and other nearby islands could be required later on Saturday or on Sunday.
Over Haiti, the storm could dump four to seven inches of rain, with isolated totals of up to 10 inches, the center said, adding that heavy rainfall could lead to flooding and potential mudslides on Monday and into Tuesday.
Before the center’s afternoon update, Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the center, said the earthquake could increase the chance of mudslides.
“It could have shifted some of the ground and soil, which could make mudslides more common,” he said.
Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the center, said the storm was not expected to make landfall in Haiti, which means the center of the storm wouldn’t cross over the island itself.
However, he said, “rain is centered all around the storm, so the center won’t mean a whole lot.”
Grace is expected to strengthen over the next couple of days, and then weaken by Monday or Tuesday, the center said.
Grace, which is the seventh named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, follows several days of floods and power outages unleashed this week by Fred.
A magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck Haiti on Saturday morning. It was stronger than the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country in 2010. The United States Geological Survey said the quake struck five miles from the town of Petit Trou de Nippes in the western part of the country, about 80 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital. Seismologists said it had a depth of seven miles. It was felt as far away as Jamaica, 200 miles away.
The U.S. Tsunami Warning Center reported a tsunami threat because of Saturday’s earthquake, but later rescinded it.
Aftershocks rippled through the region, the U.S.G.S. said, including one at magnitude 5.1.
What is the death toll?
More than 300 people were killed and 1,800 injured, according to Jerry Chandler, the director general of the Civil Protection Agency. An untold number of others were missing.
Among the dead was the former mayor of Les Cayes, Gabriel Fortuné, who was killed when the hotel he owned collapsed during the quake, according to a local journalist who knew him, Jude Bonhomme.
What parts of Haiti were affected?
Two cities, Les Cayes and Jeremie, located in Haiti’s southern peninsula, have reported major devastation with people caught under rubble and buildings collapsed. Phone lines were down in Petit Trou de Nippes, the epicenter of the quake. No news emerged immediately from that city, leaving Haitian officials to fear for the worst.
The full extent of the damage and casualties is not yet known. But doctors said hospitals were overwhelmed.
A building housing medical students, hospital interns and two doctors had collapsed, trapping those who were most needed to provide aid, said Dr. James Pierre, a surgeon at the general hospital of Les Cayes, also known as the Hospital Immaculée Conception.
The State Department’s internal assessment of the earthquake was bleak. Up to 650,000 people experienced “very strong” tremors with an additional 850,000 affected by “strong shaking,” leaving thousands of buildings at risk of damage and potential, eventual collapse, according to the assessment, shared by a State Department official.
What does this mean for the country?
This earthquake could not have come at a worst time for Haiti, which is still recovering from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 220,000 people and leveled much of Port-au-Prince. The southern peninsula, where the earthquake hit, is also still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which hit the country in 2016.
The country of 11 million is also recovering from political turmoil. Haiti has been in the throes of a political crisis since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7, and the government is not financially equipped to take care of repairs.
Archdeacon Abiade Lozama of a regional Episcopal Church in Haiti was welcoming teachers and parents to discuss plans to return to school on Saturday when the earthquake struck Les Cayes. Everyone ran outside, looking for an open space free of trees or buildings that could collapse.
He said he walked from the school to the town center and saw only a handful of houses that did not have damage.
“The streets are filled with screaming,” he said. “People are searching, for loved ones or resources, medical help, water.”
Les Cayes was hit hard by Saturday’s earthquake, which came about a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, forced the country into a political crisis.
“People are sitting around waiting for word, and there is no word — no word from their family, no word on who will help them,” he said. “When such a catastrophe happens, people wait for word or some sort of confidence from the state. But there’s nothing. No help.”
Archdeacon Lozama had planned for a joyous day to discuss pandemic reopenings but that was derailed.
“Today was supposed to be a day of hope, of meetings with teachers and students to plan for returning to school,” Archdeacon Lozama said.
In Jérémie, another area hit hard by the quake, the collapse of an old cathedral — a Haitian landmark — was a chilling throwback to 2010, when a cathedral in Port-au-Prince, the capital, was destroyed during an earthquake that has scarred the nation since.
That cathedral, which has yet to be restored, is a symbol of the many devastations the country has faced and of the government’s inability to help its own population, one of the most destitute in the world.
The main supermarket in Les Cayes collapsed, leaving the population of about half a million with dwindling supplies and worries that eventually there would be looting and fighting over basics like drinking water. The local hospitals — already underfunded — were overwhelmed with casualties.
The magnitude-7.2 quake snapped the underground pipes of Les Cayes, flooding the streets.
Dr. Fatima Geralde Joseph said she tried to rush over to the clinic where she works to start helping, but she could not cross the flooded streets and eventually had to return home.
Others interviewed said there were aftershocks as strong as magnitude 5.2 every 10 minutes, setting off panic among the population.
When Gepsie Metellus got the news from a cousin on Saturday morning that a powerful earthquake had rocked Haiti, she made a panicked call from her home in Miami to her husband, who had traveled to Port-au-Prince on Thursday for a visit.
As she dialed his number, her thoughts returned in terror to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti 11 years ago.
“It’s taking me back to visions of 2010,” said Ms. Metellus, executive director of Sant La, a Haitian neighborhood center in Miami. “We’re just bracing ourselves, just bracing ourselves for really terrible news.”
She was able to contact her husband, who was safe, but for some, the agony of not knowing the fate of their loved ones continued through the day.
Members of the Haitian diaspora in the United States spoke on Saturday of making anxious calls to relatives and friends in the Caribbean nation, and U.S.-based aid organizations were struggling to assess the scope of the damage and to connect with their people on the ground.
“All circuits are busy — circuits are really, really overwhelmed right now,” said Elizabeth Campa, an adviser with Zanmi Lasante, a health care provider in Haiti, and a sister organization of the Boston-based organization Partners in Health.
“We are still trying to desperately get a hold of the staff,” said Skyler Badenoch, chief executive of Hope for Haiti, a U.S.-based organization that works to reduce poverty in Haiti. By Saturday afternoon, the organization had been able to account for 45 of its 60 staff members in Haiti. Of those who reported themselves safe, many had experienced major damage to their homes.
Commissioner Jean Monestime of Miami-Dade County said he had fielded calls all day from constituents desperately trying to reach family members in Haiti.
“People are still in disbelief that Haiti is experiencing yet another disaster,” he said, adding that he and other Haitian American elected officials were working to organize response efforts.
“What the assessment has been so far in terms of casualty and the effort for search and rescue — there’s not much that we are learning as of yet,” Mr. Monestime said.
For those watching anxiously from the U.S., the political turbulence in the weeks following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti raised additional concerns about the prospect of recovery from Saturday’s earthquake.
“All this against the backdrop of a country where gangs are running amok, a country with no functioning government,” said Ms. Metellus, adding, “Everyone’s feeling this collective sense of anxiety, of frustration, of fear, of déjà vu.”
With phone lines down and roadways disrupted or gang-controlled, news organizations and emergency officials scrambled to try to gain access to the parts of Haiti damaged by a powerful earthquake on Saturday morning. Port-au-Prince, the capital, is 80 miles west from the quake’s epicenter, near Les Cayes — and some four and half hours away by car.
The flight time from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes is only 30 minutes. News services like The Associated Press tried to get reporters on medical or charter flights to document the state of the stricken region.
News photographs and reports began filtering through by Saturday afternoon, but in the interim, social media became a pivotal source of information about the earthquake’s devastation, supplying images and videos.
One video being picked up by multiple reporters and media outlets online shows the destruction of multiple houses and buildings as people try to help those that might be caught under the rubble.
#NEW: Images reveal mass destruction following the 7.2 earthquake in #Haiti. Similar in strength to the catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 160,000 people in the Caribbean country in 2010, according to a study. pic.twitter.com/1RYFlv31af
— Leonardo Feldman (@LeoFeldmanNEWS) August 14, 2021
The posts show people still in their pajamas or bath towels, out in the street seeking safety after fleeing violently trembling homes. Entire three-story buildings were flattened to eye-level. One video showed a group of men sifting through rubble to try to extract someone buried beneath.
This is not the first time that social media has filled an urgent news role in the Caribbean. Climate change has caused stronger storms and hurricanes that hit the area with more force, and suffering and paralyzing hits to infrastructure often hit social media first.
Social media platforms also have sometimes served as a communications network, where families could connect with loved ones when phone lines went down and learn about relief efforts, according to reporting from The Pulitzer Center.
That was true during Hurricane Maria in 2017 and also in 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 220,000 people.
Hours after the earthquake hit Haiti, the Biden administration, the United Nations and private relief agencies that operate in Haiti promised urgent help.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris received a briefing on Saturday morning about the Haiti earthquake while they were at a meeting discussing Afghanistan, according to the White House. The president authorized an immediate response, The Associated Press reported, and named the USAID administrator, Samantha Power, as the senior official coordinating the effort.
Ms. Power said in a Twitter post that USAID was “moving urgently to respond” and that experts were on the ground assessing damage and needs. In a tweet, the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said that the U.N. “is working to support rescue and relief efforts.” There was no outline of what the responses might look like as damage on the ground continues to be evaluated and the death toll continues to rise.
“While it will take days to assess the full scale of the damage, it is clear that this is a massive humanitarian emergency,” said Leila Bourahla, Save the Children’s Haiti country director. “We must respond quickly and decisively.”
UNICEF, a branch of the U.N., said in a statement that it was working with government and non-goverment organizations to evaluate what was needed. The agency said it has offices in the south of Haiti and staff members on the ground were making assessments in order to prioritize urgent needs and provide assistance to affected populations. Much of the assistance right now seems to be medical.
Nonprofit organizations like Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, which was founded by Sean Penn in 2010 after another earthquake hit Haiti, are also on the ground. CORE deployed two teams Saturday, one of which is a mobile medical team, according to a statement from the organization.
But getting aid to those who need it in Haiti isn’t easy. An influx of foreign aid and peacekeeping forces after the 2010 earthquake appeared to only worsen the country’s woes and instability. The international community has pumped $13 billion of aid into the country over the last decade, and instead of the nation-building the money was supposed to achieve, Haiti’s institutions have become further hollowed out in recent years.
The aid has propped up the country and its leaders, providing vital services and supplies in a country that has desperately needed vast amounts of humanitarian assistance. But it has also left the government with few incentives to carry out the institutional reforms necessary to rebuild the country, allowing corruption, violence and political paralysis to go unchecked.
After a powerful earthquake hit Haiti early Saturday, the U.S. Tsunami Warning Center initially reported a tsunami threat and warned of waves between three to 10 feet high.
The threat was then rescinded.
A video circulating on social media showed residents of Les Cayes fleeing a flooded street, splashing through murky, knee-deep water, but it wasn’t clear what caused the flooding.
Earthquakes with a magnitude between 6.5 and 7.5 generally do not produce deadly tsunamis, but they can cause a small sea change level close to a quake’s epicenter, according to the United States Geological Survey.