Haitian authorities say at least 304 people are dead after a major earthquake measuring 7.2 in magnitude struck on Saturday morning, sending people into the streets and causing major damage to buildings.
Another 1,800 people were reported injured as rescue and recovery operations continued late Saturday. Within an hour of the tremor the U.S. Geological Survey had warned of potentially “thousands of fatalities” and “tens of thousands of injuries in poor mountainous communities.”
Prime Minister Ariel Henry said later Saturday that some hospitals have already been overwhelmed with the wounded, and entire towns have been destroyed.
“The most important thing is to recover as many survivors as possible under the rubble,” Henry was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
French-language newspaper Le Nouvelliste further reported on Saturday that “the majority of hotels and churches on the south coast of Haiti, which are often the most important buildings in cities, have collapsed or suffered significant damage.”
“I am mobilizing all the resources of my administration in order to come to the aid of the victims,” Henry wrote in a tweet in the immediate wake of the disaster. “I extend my sympathies to the parents of the victims of this violent earthquake which caused several human and material losses in several geographical departments of the country.”
Throughout the afternoon, harrowing stories emerged from the devastation. “We can hear people screaming under the rubble,” Widchell Augustin, a Les Cayes resident, told The New York Times. “People are running back and forth to the hospital.”
Several other people in Les Cayes who had been racing against time to pull survivors out from the wreckage of a destroyed hotel made the heart-wrenching discovery that a 7-year-old girl caught in the collapse did not survive.
“I have eight kids, and I was looking for the last one. I will never see her again alive. The earthquake destroyed my life. It took a child away from me,” Jean-Claude Daniel was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
The USGS said the quake’s epicenter was about five miles from the western town of Petit Trou de Nippes, along the Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault which runs through Haiti and Jamaica. The tremor had a reported depth of seven miles and was felt throughout neighboring Dominican Republican and as far away as Jamaica.
The U.S. Tsunami Warning System issued a tsunami warning for some Haitian coasts. Video from one Haitian city showed residents fleeing down a road with rising ankle-level water. A series of smaller aftershocks continued to shake the island after the original quake.
The powerful earthquake struck at an already precarious moment: Haiti has been in political upheaval since the early July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the newly formed Tropical Storm Grace is projected move directly over Haiti overnight Monday.
Furthermore, the impoverished country has long struggled with the effects of a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people. During that 7.0-magnitude quake, more than 300,000 people were injured and 1.5 million displaced.