by The Chicago Times Staff

August 14, 2021

PORT-AU-PRINCE — On Saturday, a powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Haiti, killing at least 304 people and injuring at least 1,800 others as buildings collapsed.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he was rushing aid to areas where towns had been destroyed and hospitals were overcrowded.

The quake’s epicenter was about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of Port-au-Prince, according to the US Geological Survey, and widespread damage was reported in the hemisphere’s poorest nations as a tropical storm bore down on them.

Haiti’s civil protection agency announced on that the death toll had risen to 304, with the majority of those killed in the country’s south.  Many people were rescued from the rubble by rescue workers and bystanders.  According to the agency, injured people are still being transported to hospitals.

Henry declared a one-month state of emergency for the entire country and stated that he would not seek international assistance until the extent of the damage was determined.  He stated that some towns had been nearly completely destroyed and that the government had personnel in the coastal town of Les Cayes to help plan and coordinate the response. He stated that the International Red Cross and hospitals in unaffected areas were assisting in the care of the injured, and he urged Haitians to unite.

Later, as he boarded a plane bound for Les Cayes, Henry stated that he wanted “structured solidarity” to ensure that the response was coordinated in order to avoid the confusion that followed the devastating 2010 earthquake, in which aid was slow to reach residents after up to 300,000 were killed.

Argentina and Chile, which said they were preparing to send humanitarian aid, were among the countries that offered assistance.  ′′Haiti has been hit by adversity yet again,′′ Chilean President Sebastian Piera said.

Gabriel Fortuné, a longtime lawmaker and former mayor of Les Cayes, was among those killed in the earthquake.  According to the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste, he died along with several others when his hotel, Le Manguier, collapsed.

Philippe Boutin, 37, who lives in Puerto Rico but visits his family in Les Cayes every year, said his mother was praying in the morning when the shaking began, but she was able to leave the house.  The earthquake, he said, coincided with the celebrations for the town’s patron saint, adding that the hotel was likely full and the small town was busier than usual.

The quake damaged a seaside resort popular with Haitian officials, business leaders, diplomats, and humanitarian workers on the tiny island of Ile-a-Vache, about 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) from Les Cayes.  The Abaka Bay Resort’s owner, Fernand Sajous, said by phone that nine of the hotel’s 30 rooms collapsed, but they were empty at the time and no one was injured.

People in Les Cayes attempted to rescue guests from the rubble of a collapsed hotel, but by the time the sun set, they had only recovered the body of a 7-year-old girl whose home was located behind the facility. 

The reports of overcrowded hospitals come as Haiti grapples with the pandemic and a lack of resources to combat it.  Just last month, the country of 11 million people received its first batch of coronavirus vaccines donated by the United States through a United Nations program for low-income countries.

Former Haitian senator Richard Hervé Fourcand rented a private plane to transport injured people from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince for medical treatment. According to Haiti’s civil protection agency, rescue efforts were hampered by a landslide caused by the earthquake, which blocked a major road connecting the hard-hit towns of Jeremie and Les Cayes.

According to agency director Jerry Chandler, a partial count of structural damage included at least 860 destroyed homes and more than 700 damaged.  Hospitals, schools, offices, and churches were all hit hard.

Tropical Storm Grace is expected to make landfall in Haiti late Monday or early Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.  “This is likely to aggravate matters because the country is on the verge of being hit by the effects of two disasters in quick succession, a magnitude 7 earthquake and a looming hurricane.

Humanitarian workers reported that gang activity in the seaside district of Martissant, just west of Haiti’s capital, was also complicating relief efforts.  “No one is allowed to travel through the area,” said Ndiaga Seck, a UNICEF spokesman in Port-au-Prince, over the phone.

“Our only option is to fly over or take another route.”

The impoverished country, where many people live in precarious situations, is prone to earthquakes and hurricanes.  It was hit by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake in 2018, which killed more than a dozen people, and a much larger magnitude 7.1 earthquake in 2010, which damaged much of the capital and killed an estimated 300,000 people.

By Saturday night, the island had been hit by four aftershocks with magnitudes greater than 5.0 and nine with magnitudes greater than 4.0.