PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, January 13, 2010 (ENS) – Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have died in the most violent earthquake to strike Haiti in 200 years, while thousands more are trapped beneath collapsed buildings of the devastated capital city. The magnitude 7.0 quake, centered in a heavily populated area 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, struck at 4:53 yesterday afternoon local time.

Three million people were severely shaken in the first, strongest quake, while frequent aftershocks as large as 5.9 continue to endanger the area. The quake was shallow, just 10 kilometers beneath the surface, which added to its destructive impact.

Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive told CNN in an interview that “well over” 100,000 people may have been killed” in the quake.

A Haitian senator has estimated the death toll at half a million people.

“Casualties, which are vast, can only be estimated,” said UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky. “An unknown number – tens if not hundreds of thousands – have suffered varying degrees of destruction to their homes.”

The National Palace, the Ministry of Justice and other government offices have been destroyed. Haiti’s Senate president is believed to be trapped alive in the collapsed Parliament building.

Among those feared dead is Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince.

Haiti’s President Rene Preval told The Miami Herald, “Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people.”

The United Nations headquarters in the Christopher Hotel which housed the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, has collapsed.

Many of the UN personnel serving in the country, including Hedi Annabi, the secretary-general’s special representative, are still unaccounted for.

“Many people are still trapped inside,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at UN headquarters in New York, as he issued an urgent call to the international community to assist Haiti.

MINUSTAH troops, mostly from Brazil, worked through the night to reach those trapped under the rubble, and several badly injured people have been rescued and transported to the mission’s logistics base, which remains intact.

Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, told journalists today that fewer than 10 UN staff were pulled out of the collapsed Christopher Hotel, with some of them confirmed to have died.

Other UN offices have been damaged, and 10 people are missing from a compound housing people working for the UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme, the UN Environment Programme and other UN agencies.

Communication with and within the country is extremely difficult – telephone and power lines are down, roads and streets are blocked.

Buildings and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince suffered extensive damage, while basic services, including water and electricity are near the brink of collapse.

“There is no doubt that we are facing a major humanitarian emergency and that a major relief effort will be required,” Ban said.

Immediate health priorities include finding survivors pinned under rubble, treating people with major injuries and the provision of clean water and sanitation.

President Barack Obama expressed condolences to those lost or affected by the tragedy, and promised unwavering U.S. support.

“I have directed my administration to respond with a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives,” the President said this morning.

“The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble and to deliver the humanitarian relief – the food, water and medicine – that Haitians will need in the coming days.”

A Coast Guard cutter with the ability to replace the ruined air traffic control tower at the Port-au-Prince airport arrived this morning so planeloads of aid can start to land.

U.S. Navy and Coast Guard overflights today assessed damage on the ground, the President said this morning, and U.S. rescue teams arriving in Haiti will use the information to plan their response.

A Chinese team has already touched down in Port-au-Prince, with two teams from the United States set to arrive this afternoon with heavy equipment and dogs.

Their help is “desperately needed, said the top UN humanitarian affairs official John Holmes. “Every hour counts in this kind of situation when people are trapped under rubble and desperately need to be rescued.”

European Commission President Jose Barroso offered his deepest condolences to the victims and to the people of Haiti and pledged Europe’s full support in the international relief effort.

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department will fast-track an initial package of humanitarian relief to meet basic needs such as shelter and medical assistance worth three million euros. European assistance in the form of search and rescue teams, water purification, advanced medical posts and field hospitals is being coordinated.

The UN World Health Organization is spearheading the health response to the earthquake, deploying a 12-member team of experts in mass casualty management, coordination of emergency health response and the management of dead bodies.

Within 14 days, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility will make a US$8 million payout to the Government of Haiti as a result of the earthquake.

Haiti has an earthquake policy with CCRIF as part of the country’s disaster risk management strategy. Yesterday’s quake was of sufficient magnitude to trigger the full policy limit for the earthquake coverage.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.