Rescue efforts intensify in Haiti as earthquake death toll nears 1,300

The death toll from a devastating earthquake in Haiti rose to 1,297 on Sunday as neighboring countries rushed to send aid and rescuers scrambled to find survivors buried under the din before a tropical storm struck.

Saturday’s magnitude 7.2 earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and buildings in a Caribbean nation that is still reeling from another major quake years ago and reeling from the assassination of its president last month.

Southwest Haiti was the most affected, especially in and around the Les Cayes region. Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency said the death toll from the disaster had risen to 1,297 and that hospitals that were still in operation were struggling to cope with some 5,700 injured people recorded so far.

The challenge facing Haiti has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, a severe economic recession compounded by fierce gang violence, and a political crisis that has gripped the troubled nation following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on the 7th. of July.

Churches, hotels, hospitals and schools were badly damaged or destroyed, while the walls of a prison were torn apart by the violent shaking that convulsed Haiti.

In Les Cayes, a coastal city of about 90,000 people, rescuers in red helmets and blue overalls pulled bodies out of the tangled remains of a building, while a nearby yellow mechanical bulldozer helped remove debris.

“We must work together to provide swift and effective responses to this extremely serious situation,” said Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had flown to Les Cayes.

Nearby countries, including the Dominican Republic and Mexico, rushed to send desperately needed food and medicine by air and across Haiti’s land border.

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

From the Vatican, Pope Francis urged the international community to show its support quickly. “May the solidarity of all alleviate the consequences of the tragedy,” he told pilgrims and tourists at his Sunday blessing in St. Peter’s Square.

However, the Haitian government called on aid organizations not to set up makeshift camps and urged them to work through the planning ministry, an apparent attempt to avoid the mistakes made after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

Many Haitians spent Saturday night sleeping outdoors, traumatized by memories of that magnitude 7 earthquake 11 years ago that struck much closer to the sprawling capital, Port-au-Prince.

At the Port-au-Prince airport, international humanitarian workers, doctors and rescuers waited to board the flights to Les Cayes. A United States Coast Guard helicopter transported the wounded.

Rescue and relief efforts will be complicated by Tropical Storm Grace, which is expected to hit Haiti with heavy rains on Monday. Some parts of Haiti are also at risk of flash floods, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

“We are preparing for Tropical Storm Grace,” Chandler of the Civil Protection Agency told Reuters.

Thousands of people sleeping on the streets would be exposed to torrential rains amid increasing risk of waterborne diseases, he said.

Humanitarian corridor

Images of Saturday’s aftermath posted on social media showed residents reaching into narrow openings in piles of fallen masonry to lift dismayed and distraught people from the rubble of walls and roofs that had collapsed. around it.

Access to the most affected areas was complicated by the deterioration of law and order that has left key access roads in parts of Haiti in the hands of gangs. In a video posted on social media, a gang leader said armed groups had declared a truce along the route to Les Cayes.

Chandler said boats and helicopters were being used to bring in aid, but the government was working to establish safe road access. A first convoy of aid had arrived by land in the Les Cayes region where, he said, several hospitals had been badly damaged.

“Those that are functional are getting a lot of patients, so the staff is literally overwhelmed,” he said.

Following Moise’s assassination, which authorities say was carried out by a group of mostly Colombian mercenaries and Haitian accomplices, Prime Minister Henry said officials would aim to hold elections for a new president as soon as possible.

However, reports this week suggested that the vote initially scheduled for September would not take place until November. The chaos unleashed by Saturday’s disaster is likely to make the task of holding immediate elections even more difficult.

Haiti has long been politically unstable and Haitians have also suffered from problems stemming from international aid efforts and peacekeeping deployments over the past decade.

A sexual misconduct scandal centered on Oxfam International ruined the record of charities in Haiti, while a cholera outbreak linked to UN peacekeepers led to thousands of deaths. Twitter tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father is from Haiti, expressed her regret on Twitter and said she would give all of the prize money she won in a tournament next week to relief efforts.

“I know that the blood of our ancestors is strong,” he said, “we will continue to increase.”

(REUTERS)

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