The U.S. government and international relief organizations scrambled overnight to mobilize a response to a disaster in Haiti whose dimensions are still unknown. The devastating 7.0 earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince late Tuesday afternoon destroyed the National Palace, many government ministries, major hotels and private residences in the 250-year-old capital city.
Most communications with Haiti were cut off, leaving much of the on-the-ground reporting to Haitians and foreigners armed with mobile phones and Internet connections. The news trickled out in Twitter feeds and mobile phone pictures from eyewitnesses. They showed collapsed roofs, slabs of concrete and bodies in the streets. What witnesses reported but mercifully did not record were the screams of the desperate and the trapped, and the occasional cheers when survivors were pulled from the rubble.
The early messages passed by a Haiti discussion list were like old-fashioned telegrams, terse and descriptive. “Caribbean Market is down. Auto Plaza (a large car dealership) is down. Delmas 2000 (a shopping mall) is down. There are reports the National Palace is down. Several ministries are down or severely damaged. College Canado is down,” the correspondent texted. “I’ve felt and counted 12 aftershocks, at least 3 them pretty strong.”
Richard Morse, operator of the Hotel Oloffson and an inveterate blogger, Twittered tidbits of information: “I hear Hotel Christopher is down from UN reporter..Christopher is UN headquarters.” And another: “I’m told things aren’t good at Montana.. an eight- story building behind me is rubble.” Another set of Twitter messages reported a religious response to the disaster: “The singing and praying is getting more intense..you have to believe!!” And again, reality: “From what I’m hearing, this is worse than anyone is imagining.” And finally: “It’s getting quieter in PauP..singing and praying I was hearing earlier has died down..no helicopters..no sound of ambulances.”
“This is a catastrophe of major proportions, said Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, on CNN’s Situation Room. “The place is really bad now.”
Haiti was still trying to recover from the devastation of a series of back-to-back hurricanes that flooded the northern town of Gonaives and the central plain that has been Haiti’s breadbasket. The country, the poorest and the second most densely populated in the Western Hemisphere, has struggled with political turmoil, including the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, his restoration by President Clinton in 1994 , his re-election in 2001 and his hasty departure again in 2004 under mysterious circumstances. Aristide claimed he was kidnapped by the U.S. military and forced into exile in South Africa.
A UN peacekeeping force under Brazilian command has been in Haiti since Artistide’s ouster and remained after the election of the current president, René Preval. Former President Bill Clinton recently accepted a role in encouraging investors to consider Haiti.