Death toll from massive Haiti earthquake soars

A report by Ingrid Arnesen and Anthony Faiola for The Washington Post.

An anguished cry in Creole echoed across the battered south of Haiti on Sunday as a devastated people sought to rescue friends, neighbors and loved ones from the rubble left by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake.

Anpil anpil victimes.

Many, many victims.

The death toll from the earthquake that shook this Caribbean nation on Saturday rose to 1,297, authorities said, as government officials sought aid from U.S. first responders. Adding to the woes of a country that suffers a seemingly endless supply: Tropical Storm Grace was bearing down with heavy rains forecast for Monday, threatening to further complicate relief efforts.

Haiti’s Public Works ministry dispatched 55 rescue teams, composed of military and civil protection personnel, for search and rescue efforts, but it was not enough. In some communities, residents reported a lack of relief workers and took it upon themselves to act.

“It’s the people from the neighborhood using their own hands who have been digging and rescuing anyone they can save,” said Cassis Jean-David, a 31-year old farmer in the city of Torbeck on the southwestern coast.

He and a group of neighbors aided a 21-year old woman whose foot they could see protruding from a collapsed house. They were able to get her out alive. But they were unable to save a 47-year-old mother who was found dead holding her small son.

“Houses collapsed everywhere!” Jean David said. “It’s a very grave situation. … People are still lying where they died.”

As Haitians used crude tools to dig through collapsed homes and buildings, USAID prepared to deploy a 65-member search-and-rescue team on Sunday from Fairfax County, Va. The team carried four dogs and 26 tons of specialized tools and equipment including hydraulic concrete breaking equipment, saws, torches, drills and advanced medical equipment. Five additional members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department will deploy to provide technical support to the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team to help with emergency management and coordination efforts, USAID said in a statement.

Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian Ambassador to the United States, said he had also requested a search-and-rescue team from Miami-Dade County.

“We want [U.S. first responders] to help,” he said. “We have news that in some parts of the country there are probably people under rubble, and we want to give them a chance.”

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti warned that relief operations were confronting “restrictions” due to the presence of violent gangs that have been “hindering the capacity of humanitarian actors to operate normally and reach affected populations.” An official said the agency hoped that a freshly struck deal for one-week cease-fire with the gangs would open a humanitarian corridor.

The earthquake that struck Haiti at 8:29 a.m. Saturday was stronger than the one that killed more than 220,000 people in 2010, but it was centered farther from the capital. Officials and witnesses said the southern and western areas of the country sustained devastating damage.

Haiti’s civil protection office on Sunday evening reported at least 1,297 deaths. More than 5,700 people have been injured and more than 27,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Schools, churches and at least one hospital have also been damaged or destroyed, the U.N. office said.

The death toll is expected to rise.

In a country already suffering a food crisis, the earthquake hit Haiti’s breadbasket, as well as the very region that was devastated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Paul Domerçant, a 38-year old ambulance driver for the Immaculate Conception Hospital in downtown Les Cayes, described a scene similar to that of Port-au-Prince’s Hopital de l’Universite d’Etat d’Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“Injured victims flooded the emergency room,” Domerçant said. “We have no space, no beds, we put patients outside, in the parking lot, under trees, and it hasn’t stopped.”

Domerçant said he witnessed residents pulling bodies out of the debris of collapsed structures.

“There was a burial at a church when the earthquake hit,” he said. “The whole building came down. Some were rescued and brought to the hospital, but there are many more trapped inside.

“Hospitals are at full capacity, both state and private in Les Cayes. It was and continues to be a triage nightmare. We were not well equipped even before the earthquake.”

At least three urban areas in the southern region — Jeremie, Les Cayes and Baradères — suffered major damage, with fears of broader damage in villages and towns closer to the epicenter. High call traffic jammed lines earlier in the day, but cellular phone infrastructure in the area remained operational.

Haiti’s long, terrible history of earthquakes and disaster

Milord Claude Harry, the mayor of Jeremie, a coastal town of 31,000, said 400 families whose homes were destroyed were sleeping on the streets. He said Jeremie and communities on its outskirts were running out of water and medicine.

He said search and rescue teams from the Haitian Police and the Haitian health department were being joined by volunteers. But there still had been no contact with more remote communities.

“People there are on their own,” Harry said.

He said the Hospital of Saint Antoine de Jeremie was in urgent need of oxygen equipment, syringes and masks. The spread of the coronavirus and its Delta variant in a disaster situation was a serious concern.

Even before the quake, Haiti was struggling with rising gang violence, political instability — its president was assassinated last month — and a brutal economic crisis that has sent refugees fleeing parts of capital and required regular distribution of U.N. food aid. Distribution to the southern parts of the country had been hampered in recent months by the violent gangs that control the Martissant neighborhood of the capital; any relief effort by land to quake-devastated areas now will need to traverse that same dangerous route.

In one positive sign, the gangs controlling Martissant have offered a pledge for a one week “cease-fire” to allow convoys to pass through safely, according to Christian Cricboom, Haiti director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Cricboom said emergency teams and medical supplies were already being flown into the hardest-hit areas by helicopter. He said a “test convoy” over land with assessment personnel would be departing on Sunday, in the hopes that the gangs would honor their pledge.

Exactly what aid would be sent in the coming days remained to be determined. U.N. and foreign governments were waiting for specific requests from the Haitian government. Cricboom said foreign ambassadors would be holding a crisis planning meeting on Monday to coordinate efforts.

Cricboom said he had flown over the devastated south on Sunday. He called the scene “quite intense … some buildings are damaged and others destroyed.” But he said many structures were still standing, and the level of destruction did not appear to be as catastrophic as in the 2010 quake — in part because that one struck closer to densely populated Port-au-Prince, and the southern regions hit now are more rural.

“The death toll will increase, but we are not talking about hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said.

As foreign charities, nongovernmental organizations and volunteer groups dispatched people, supplies and equipment to Haiti, Haitan authorities reiterated their insistence that all aid be channeled and cleared through them. Officials said the government wants to avoid a repeat of massive amounts spent — and misspent — in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“All aid must be coordinated through the Civil Protection to prevent the errors of 2010,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry told reporters in Port-au-Prince.

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