A devastating earthquake measuring 7.


0 rocked the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti toppling buildings and triggering fears that hundreds have been killed in a wave of destruction.

MAP: Haiti quake – USGS

“When we get an idea of the toll it will be measured in the hundreds,” a local doctor, who was bloodied and nursing a injured left arm, said on.

Rescue efforts were hampered when communications were snapped in the minutes after the earthquake struck at 2153 GMT.

But early pictures sent on the micro internet network site Twitter showed scenes of devastation with crumbled walls, and crushed cars.

A pall of grey smoke hung over a part of one city, as dazed residents stared around them. “I think it’s really a catastrophe of major proportions,” Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Alcide Joseph, told CNN television.

The US State Department said it also feared there had been casualties, but as they desperately tried to reach embassy staff and aid workers could only provide sketchy details.

Quoting an embassy worker, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: “A number of structures have collapsed. He has seen walls down, a number of people injured and killed.

Can’t put a magnitude on it at this point.”

He added there had been significant damage. An AFP correspondent said the ground shook for more than a minute. Later three aftershocks measuring 5.9, 5.5 and 5.1 on the moment magnitude scale hit, US officials said.

Rachel Wolff, international director for World Vision, said when the quake first struck she managed to speak to their national director in Port-au-Prince, but since then they had had no word.

“He said he heard quite a bit of screaming the capital where he works, people seemed very frightened, people were out in the streets, there was a bit of a panicked situation,” she told AFP.

“He also said just outside World Vision headquarters that roads were blocked by buildings, residences that had fallen into the street and traffic was piling up.”

In Port-au-Prince, local media reported that the presidential palace, parliament, cathedral and several ministries were badly damaged.

The headquarters of the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which has served as a peacekeeping mission there since 2004, was also destroyed by the temblor, according to a local employee.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was “very concerned” over the plight of Haitians and of the UN staff serving in the nation.

An AFP correspondent in Petionville, a suburb east of the capital, said one three-story building was toppled by the quake, and a tractor was already at the scene trying to dig out victims as people fled onto the streets in panic.

The up-scale area is home to many foreign diplomats and members of the UN mission to the country.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the powerful quake was initially measured at 7.3 and struck 16 kilometres from the capital Port-au-Prince, and 27 kilometres from Petionville.

A tsunami alert for the Caribbean region was immediately issued, but swiftly lifted again. In Washington, President Barack Obama said the United States stood ready to help.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake,” Obama said.

A US Southern Command spokesman in Miami said the agency was “monitoring the situation and coordinating everything to respond rapidly.”

“We’ll work very closely with the Pentagon in terms of flowing significant assistance and manpower to Haiti in the coming days,” Crowley said.

Already the poorest nation in the Americas, Haiti has been hit by a series of disasters recently and was battered by hurricanes in 2008.

Four big storms – Tropical Storm Fay and hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike – pounded Haiti in August and September 2008, killing a total of 793 people and leaving more than 300 others missing, according to government figures.

The country was also gripped by a tense political standoff in April 2008 amid riots over skyrocketing food prices.

UN troops are a regular sight throughout much of the country.

The Inter-American Development Bank said it was immediately approving $US200,000 ($A217,438.57) in emergency assistance in the wake of the quake.

Seventy per cent of Haiti’s population lives on less than two dollars per day, and half of its 8.5 million people are unemployed.

According to official figures, food insecurity already affects more than a quarter of Haiti’s population.