A devastating earthquake killed more than 300 people Saturday morning in southwestern Haiti, with reports of towns destroyed and victims buried in the rubble as hospitals were overrun with injured survivors.
Officials were sent scrambling after the 8:30 a.m. quake, with its epicenter about 78 miles west of capital city Port-au-Prince. Search-and-rescue teams were dispatched to the coastal town of Les Cayes, where officials reported a number of buildings collapsed or severely damaged, according to Reuters.
The death toll hit 304 as the search continued for the living and the dead.
“The most important thing is to recover as many people as possible under the rubble,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry told The Associated Press. “We have learned the local hospitals, in particular that of Les Cayes, are overwhelmed with wounded people.”
The earthquake coincided with the annual celebration of the town’s patron saint, with the local hotel likely full and a larger number of visitors than usual, said Philippe Boutin, 37, who came from Puerto Rico to visit his family. The out-of-towner said his mother was saying her morning prayers when the shaking began out of nowhere.
“We still don’t know how many people are under the rubble,” he said.
The 7.2-magnitude quake led Henry to declare a month-long state of emergency as authorities assessed the full extent of the damage.
“The needs are enormous,” said Henry. “We must take care of the injured and fractured, but also provide food, aid, temporary shelter and psychological support.”
The quake struck only days before a projected tropical storm is forecast to make landfall and barely a month after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated.
“Let’s put our shoulders together to bring solidarity,” tweeted presidential widow Martine Moise after the disaster. “It is this connection that makes us strong and resilient. Courage.”
Henry vowed to mobilize all available government resources and echoed Moise’s call for Haitians to unify as they ″confront this dramatic situation in which we’re living right now.” The quake also caused some flooding in Las Cayes, raising fears of a tsunami among local residents before the threat passed.
About 100 miles away in Port-au-Prince, terrified local residents ran into the streets as aftershocks rattled the city.
“In my neighborhood, I heard people screaming,” said Sephora Pierre Louis after the morning scare. “They were flying outside.”
Spotty Internet service on the island slowed the process of sharing details on deaths and damage with officials in Port-au-Prince. Relief efforts were further complicated by gang activity in the seaside district of Martissant, just west of the Haitian capital.
“Nobody can travel through the area,” Ndiaga Seck, a UNICEF spokesman in Port-au-Prince, told the AP by phone. “We can only fly over or take another route.”
Seck said UNICEF planned to send medical supplies to two hospitals in the south — in Les Cayes and Jeremie. Local Catholic priest Fredy Elie issued a call for help in clearing a path for rescuers through the gangs impeding the rescue work.
“It’s time to open the road to those who want to help,” he said.
Saturday’s 7.2 magnitude quake was more powerful than the 7.0 magnitude quake in 2010 that U.S. officials say killed more than 100,000 Haitians.