The dead and injured lay in the streets of the Haitian capital Port-Au-Prince, as strong aftershocks rippled through the impoverished Caribbean nation Wednesday. A rough estimate of the number of casualties is impossible at this time, officials say.
Haitians were desperately trying to dig out Wednesday after the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake that shook the capital of Port-au-Prince, causing massive destruction.
The full extent of the damage remains unclear with most communications lines down to the Caribbean island, but as many as 3 million people may have been affected by the quake, according to estimates by the International Federation of the Red Cross.
Aid officials braced for casualties that could number in the hundreds or thousands, as relief groups scrambled to contact their staff members and arrange for international aid deliveries. The U.S. government mobilized Coast Guard cutters and aircraft to be ready to deliver humanitarian assistance. U.S. officials reported bodies lying in the streets and an aid official described "total disaster and chaos."
Aftershocks rattled the capital as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns.
"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," Dr. Louis-Gerard Gilles, a former senator, said as he helped survivors. "Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together."
At a destroyed four-story apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car trying to peer inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. The girl said her family was inside.
Magalie Boyer, a staffer for World Vision, an international aid group, was in the capital during the quake.
"Port-au Prince is a city of walls, and you know the walls kept tumbling down around the World Vision office," she said. "Cars were stuck and could not get anywhere. Trees fell. A couple of buildings collapsed. Roofs were no longer horizontal. There were extensive signs of damage."
The reports trickling in offered alarming hints about the extent of the damage to one of the world's poorest nations. Rickety shantytowns lay in ruins, while the ornate National Palace, one of the more substantial buildings in the capital, crumbled. Haitian officials said President Rene Preval and his wife survived the quake.
"There are people injured in the palace,'' Fritz Longchamp, the building's executive director, told the Miami Herald. "I'm calling for help and medical assistance for them."
The headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission also collapsed. At least 11 peacekeepers were killed and scores were missing, while other U.N. troops, mostly from Brazil, frantically combed the wreckage looking for survivors.
"The main building that was the headquarters building has collapsed," Alain Le Roy, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said late Tuesday. "We know clearly it is a tragedy for Haiti, and a tragedy for the U.N., and especially for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti."
"There will be casualties, but we cannot give figures for the time being," Le Roy said.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio Wednesday that he believed that the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, a Tunisian diplomat, was killed when the building collapsed.
The quake hit at 4:53 p.m. local time, near the end of the regular workday. Centered only 10 miles away from the capital, it was the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti, according to Kristin Marano, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
It was a shallow quake, only about six miles deep. Thomas Jordan, head of the Southern California Earthquake Center, says it started along a fault that lies between two giant tectonic plates: the Caribbean and North American plates.
In Washington, President Obama offered prayers for the people of Haiti and said the United States was ready to help.
U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince were still trying to get a handle on the scale of the disaster.
"They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday night. "They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there's going to be serious loss of life in this."
The U.S. Agency for International Development is sending a team of experts to the country, along with search and rescue teams from Fairfax County, Va., and Los Angeles County, Calif.
Haiti will need all the help it can get. Most of Haiti's 9 million people are desperately poor, and the country has been wracked by years of political instability.
Decades of violence culminated in a bloody rebellion in 2004 that prompted the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force that now includes 7,000 troops and an additional 2,000 international police.
Crime has since decreased somewhat, due to the presence of the U.N. troops and the rebuilding of the country's own police force.
But Haiti has limited capability to address such a widespread disaster.
Elizabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s humanitarian office, said it was working with independent aid agency Telecoms Sans Frontieres to get phone lines working again — a key element in organizing relief efforts.
Venezuela's government said it would send a military plane with canned foods, medicine and drinking water and provide 50 rescue workers. Mexico, which suffered an earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, planned to send doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts.
Italy said it was sending a C-130 cargo plane Wednesday with a field hospital and emergency medical personnel as well as a team to assess aid needs. France said 65 clearing specialists with six sniffer dogs, as well as two doctors and two nurses were preparing to depart.
Haitians living outside the country frantically tried to contact relatives on the island throughout the night.
Edwidge Danticat, an award-winning Haitian-American author, has been unable to contact relatives in Haiti. She sat with family and friends at her home in Miami, looking for news on the Internet and watching TV news reports.
"You want to go there, but you just have to wait," she said. "Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this."
NPR's Kevin Whitelaw, Michele Kelemen and Christopher Joyce and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.