LES CAYES, Haiti — A powerful magnitude 7.2 earthquake added to the misery in Haiti, killing at least 304 people, injuring a minimum of 1,800 others and destroying hundreds of homes. People in the Caribbean island nation rushed into the streets to seek safety and to help help rescue those trapped in the rubble of collapsed homes, hotels and other structures.
Saturday’s earthquake struck the southwestern part of the hemisphere’s poorest nation, almost razing some towns and triggering landslides that hampered rescue efforts in two of the hardest-hit communities. The disaster also added to the plight of Haitians, who were already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential assassination and deepening poverty.
The epicenter of the quake was about 125 kilometers (78 miles) west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The widespread damage could worsen by early next week, with Tropical Storm Grace predicted to reach Haiti late Monday or early Tuesday.
Aftershocks were felt throughout the day and late into the night, when many people now homeless or frightened by the possibility of their fractured homes collapsing on them stayed in the streets to sleep — if their nerves allowed them.
In the badly damaged coastal town of Les Cayes, under darkness that was only punctured by flashlights, some praised God for surviving the earthquake.
“We are alive today because God loves us,” said Marie-claire Jean-Pierre, whose home collapsed a moment after she and her son stepped outside when they felt the ground begin to shake.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he was rushing aid to areas where towns were destroyed and hospitals overwhelmed with incoming patients. A former senator rented a private airplane to move injured people from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince for medical assistance.
Henry declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country and said he would not ask for international help until the extent of the damages was known.
“The most important thing is to recover as many survivors as possible under the rubble,” said Henry. “We have learned that the local hospitals, in particular that of Les Cayes, are overwhelmed with wounded, fractured people.”
Jerry Chandler, director of Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, told reporters that the death toll stood at 304 Saturday night. Rescue workers and bystanders were able to pull many people to safety from the rubble.
Chandler said a partial count of structural damage included at least 860 destroyed homes and more than 700 damaged. Hospitals, schools, offices and churches were also affected.
On the tiny island of Ile-a-Vache, about 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) from Les Cayes, the quake damaged a seaside resort popular with Haitian officials, business leaders, diplomats and humanitarian workers. Fernand Sajous, owner of the Abaka Bay Resort, said by telephone that nine of the hotel’s 30 rooms collapsed, but he said they were vacant at the time and no one was injured.
“They disappeared — just like that,” Sajous said.
People in Les Cayes tried to pull guests from the rubble of a collapsed hotel, but as the sun set, they had only been able to recover the body of a 7-year-old girl whose home was behind the facility.
“I have eight kids, and I was looking for the last one,” Jean-Claude Daniel said through tears. “I will never see her again alive. The earthquake destroyed my life. It took a child away from me.”
The reports of overwhelmed hospitals come as Haiti struggles with the pandemic and a lack of resources to deal with it. Just last month, the country of 11 million people received its first batch of U.S.-donated coronavirus vaccines, via a United Nations program for low-income countries.
The earthquake also struck just over a month after President Jovenel Moïse was shot to death in his home, sending the country into political chaos. His widow, Martine Moïse, who was seriously wounded in the attack, posted a message on Twitter calling for unity among Haitians: “Let’s put our shoulders together to bring solidarity.”
As he boarded a plane bound for Les Cayes, Henry said he wanted “structured solidarity” to ensure the response was coordinated to avoid the confusion that followed the devastating 2010 earthquake, when aid was slow to reach residents after as many as 300,000 Haitians were killed.
U.S. President Joe Biden authorized an immediate response and named USAID Administrator Samantha Power as the senior official coordinating the U.S effort to help Haiti. USAID will help to assess damage and assist in rebuilding, said Biden, who called the United States a “close and enduring friend to the people of Haiti.”
Argentina and Chile also were among the first nations to promise help.
Humanitarian workers said gang activity in the seaside district of Martissant, just west of the Haitian capital, also was complicating relief efforts.
“Nobody can travel through the area,” Ndiaga Seck, a UNICEF spokesman in Port-au-Prince, said by phone. “We can only fly over or take another route.”
Seck said information about deaths and damage was slow coming to Port-au-Prince because of spotty internet service, but UNICEF planned to send medical supplies to two hospitals in the south, in Les Cayes and Jeremie.
People in Port-au-Prince felt the tremor and many rushed into the streets in fear, although there did not appear to be damage there.
Haiti, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes. It was struck by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake in 2018 that killed more than a dozen people.
By late Saturday, the island had experienced six aftershocks stronger than 5.0 and nine above 4.0.
Claude Prepetit, a Haitian civil engineer and geologist, warned of the danger from cracked structures.
“More or less intensive aftershocks are to be expected for a month,” he said, cautioning that some buildings, “badly damaged during the earthquake, can collapse during aftershocks.”
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported this story from Mexico City and AP writer Evens Sanon reported in Les Cayes. AP writer Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, Josh Boak in Washington and Trenton Daniel in New York contributed to this report.