With storm approaching Haiti, earthquake rescue efforts intensify

With a tropical depression barreling towards Haiti, doctors and aid workers are rushing to get flights or transport to reach areas devastated by a major earthquake.

Port-au-Prince airport on Monday was bustling with medics and aid workers, with domestic and private charter flights filled with humanitarian teams and supplies headed south.

Saturday’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed at least 1,297 people and injured nearly 5,700 as it brought down thousands of homes and buildings in the deeply impoverished Caribbean nation, which is still recovering from another strong earthquake 11 years ago and the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moise, last month.

The earthquake was centred about 125km (78 miles) west of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The areas in and around the city of Les Cayes suffered the biggest hit, putting enormous strain on local hospitals, some of which were badly damaged by the earthquake.

After sundown on Sunday, Les Cayes was darkened by intermittent blackouts, and many people slept outside again, clutching small transistor radios tuned to news, terrified of the continuing aftershocks.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry has declared a one-month state of emergency for the country and said the first aid convoys organised by the government had started moving help to areas where towns were destroyed and hospitals were overwhelmed.

“From this Monday, we will move faster. Aid provision is going to be accelerated,” he wrote on Twitter. “We will multiply efforts tenfold to reach as many victims as possible with aid.”

Les Cayes resident Jennie Auguste, who was injured in the earthquake, rested on Sunday on a mattress on an airport tarmac as she waited for a bed at a local hospital or a seat on a plane transporting the injured to Haiti’s capital.

“There has been nothing. No help, nothing from the government,” Auguste’s sister, Bertrande, told The Associated Press news agency on Sunday as Haitians were still trying to take stock of everything around them as the death toll from the disaster soared.

Access to the area has been complicated by months of political turmoil in Haiti, which has left gangs in control of key access routes to parts of the country.

The United Nations called for a “humanitarian corridor” to enable aid to pass through gang-held territories.

Aid workers were hurrying to beat the arrival of Tropical Depression Grace, which early on Monday was moving west-northwest off the southern coast of Hispaniola, the island that Haiti shares with the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

According to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) projections, Grace will pass right through areas directly hit by the earthquake, and could douse them with heavy rain. Skies over Port-au-Prince were still clear early on Monday.

Many Haitians who lost their homes have been sleeping outdoors, many traumatised by memories of a magnitude 7 earthquake 11 years ago that struck far closer to Port-au-Prince.

Thousands of people sleeping in the streets would be exposed to rains amid a rising risk of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, according to Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency.

“We do have a serious issue,” Chandler said on Sunday.

He said boats and helicopters were being used to bring in aid, but the government was working to establish safe access by road. Initial supplies have made it through by land.

In Jeremie, to the northwest of Les Cayes, doctors were forced to treat injured patients on hospital stretchers underneath trees and on mattresses by the side of the road.

Churches, hotels and schools were also seriously damaged or ruined in the earthquake. Some 13,694 houses were destroyed, the civil protection agency said, and the toll could rise further.

In Les Cayes, a seafront town of some 90,000 people, rescuers in red hard hats and blue overalls pulled bodies from the tangled wreckage of one building, as a yellow mechanical excavator nearby helped to shift the rubble.

Nearby countries rushed to send food and medicines. Colombia dispatched search and rescue personnel. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday morning his country would continue to provide support to Haiti.

The United States sent vital supplies and deployed a 65-member urban search-and-rescue team with specialised equipment, said Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The death toll may rise because the telephone network has been down in more remote areas. In difficult to reach villages, many houses were fragile and built on slopes vulnerable to landslides, said Alix Percinthe of the ActionAid charity.