The largest earthquake to strike Haiti in more than a century collapsed a hospital and homes Tuesday and caused chaos in streets choked by a massive dust cloud.
"A huge billow of dust" caused by "buildings crashing down," hung over the capital, Port-au-Prince, said Bill Canny, director of emergency operations for Catholic Relief Services.
Sara Fajardo, communications officer for Latin America and the Caribbean at CRS, said aid workers in the capital told her that "there must be thousands of people dead."
"It was just total disaster and chaos," she said.
Dazed and injured Haitians sat on darkened streets pleading for help Wednesday and untold numbers were trapped in tons of rubble brought down by the strongest earthquake to hit the poor Caribbean nation.
Destroyed communications made it impossible to tell the extent of destruction from Tuesday afternoon's 7.0-magnitude tremor - or to estimate the number of dead lying among thousands of collapsed buildings in Haiti's capital of about 2 million people.
The ornate National Palace crumbled into itself, the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission collapsed and swaths of rickety shacks lay in shambles. Clouds of dust thrown up by falling buildings choked Port-au-Prince for hours.
The United States and other nations began organizing aid efforts, alerting search teams and gathering supplies that will be badly needed in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. The international Red Cross and other aid groups announced plans for major relief operations.
Aftershocks rattled the city as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns.
It was clear tens of thousands lost their homes and many perished in collapsed buildings flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions.
"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," Dr. Louis-Gerard Gilles, a former senator, said as he helped survivors. "Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together."
The International Federation of the Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million people have been affected by a powerful earthquake that caused massive destruction in the Haitian capital.
Spokesman Paul Conneally says the fact that the quake occurred very close to Port-au-Prince was "not a good indicator"
He says Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere and is ill-prepared to handle a major disaster.
Conneally told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it would take 24-48 hours before a clear picture emerges of the scale of the destruction.
Meanwhile, international aid groups including the Red Cross are gearing up for a major relief effort in Haiti focused on rescuing survivors and setting up field hospitals for the wounded.
Aid workers described scenes of desperation as people ran through traffic-choked streets and fallen buildings to find loved ones and carry them to hospitals, Canny said. Phone communications were overwhelmed. Power was out, and bodies lay in the streets, according to the State Department.
At least two Americans were believed trapped in wreckage. Frank Thorp said he had been told that his daughter-in-law tried to get help on her cellphone and that her leg was badly injured. Jillian Thorp, 24, and Charles Dietsch work with the Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., Executive Director Emily Smack said.
The quake struck at 4:53 p.m., centered just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of only 5 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti.
An Associated Press videographer saw a wrecked hospital in Petionville, a hillside district home to diplomats and wealthy Haitians. Felix Augustin, Haiti's consul general in New York, said part of the National Palace had disintegrated. "Buildings collapsed all over," he said. "It will take at least two or three days for people to know what's going on."
"I had one person describing to us a car split in half, a school that collapsed. It's mayhem at the moment," said UNICEF USA President Caryl Stern.
The quake appeared to have occurred on a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, said quake expert Tom Jordan of the University of Southern California.
Minor earthquakes are common in the Caribbean, but there has not been a major one in Haiti in 16 years. The quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti, and in Cuba, but there were no reports of significant damage.
"Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out," said Henry Bahn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official visiting Port-au-Prince. Bahn said he saw a ravine where several homes had stood: "It's just full of collapsed walls and rubble."
"The sky is just gray with dust," Bahn told the Associated Press.
Tuesday's quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but no major damage was reported there. In eastern Cuba, houses shook but no significant damage was reported.
With electricity knocked out in many places and phone service erratic, it was nearly impossible for Haitian or foreign officials to get full details of the devastation.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that U.S. Embassy personnel were "literally in the dark" after power failed.
"They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there's going to be serious loss of life in this," he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
St. Petersburg - David Anefils contacted 10 Connects after he was unable to reach his father Jeff in Haiti.
Rev. Jeff Anefils is the founder of Voice Of Christ Ministries, he flew to the island Monday, January 4th, 2010 to continue his mission in Haiti. His location was 12 Miles away from the earthquake's epicenter.
We spoke with David Anefils on The Morning Show. You can see our interview by clicking on the clip on the right hand side of this page.
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