, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 13 – The strongest earthquake to hit Haiti in over a century rocked the impoverished Caribbean nation Tuesday, toppling buildings and triggering fears that hundreds have been killed in widespread destruction.
Some of the country\\\’s most venerable buildings, including Haiti\\\’s presidential palace, were destroyed by the late-afternoon, 7.0-magnitude quake, and bodies were seen arrayed in the streets as darkness enveloped a panic-stricken capital Port-au-Prince.
Injured, homeless and horrified residents of the crowded capital of two million suffered through the terror of dozens of strong aftershocks, according to scattered eyewitness reports.
With a major tragedy was unfolding, communication and electricity alternated between patchy and complete cutoff, and the full magnitude of destruction quickly dawned on Haitian officials, one of whom described the quake as a "catastrophe of major proportions."
The US Geological Survey (USGS) said 27 strong aftershocks hit the country in the hours after the initial 2153 GMT quake.
Sara Fajardo of Catholic Relief Services told AFP that staff in the country were terrified the aftershocks would topple more buildings.
"There have been buildings that have fallen down, there was one right across from our office," Fajardo said after CRS members spoke with staff in Haiti.
"Most of the Catholic Relief Services staff is going to be sleeping on the CRS office compound but they\\\’re sleeping outside because they\\\’re too afraid to sleep indoors out of safety concerns," she said.
Early Wednesday an AFP reporter saw looters raiding a supermarket in the north of the capital — a scene of devastation with flattened homes and buildings, ripped up telephone poles and crushed cars.
"The center of Port-au-Prince has been destroyed, it\\\’s a catastrophe," wailed a man named Pierre, so traumatized he could hardly speak as he surveyed the disaster.
A pall of grey smoke hung over a part of one city, as dazed residents covered in dust were pulled from the rubble. Roads and highways had been snapped, their tarmac twisted and torn. Related article: Scenes of horror
Video of the initial quake aired on CNN showed a thick cloud of dust erupted from dozens of collapsing buildings obscuring the view of Port-au-Prince for minutes after the temblor.
"I think it\\\’s really a catastrophe of major proportions," Haiti\\\’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Alcide Joseph, told CNN.
Haiti\\\’s ambassador to Mexico said Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife "are alive and well" but did not provide further information on their whereabouts.
"The situation is very serious," Ambassador Robert Manuel told reporters in Mexico City.
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.
"The headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti has been destroyed in large part. There are numerous people underneath the rubble, both dead and injured," a local employee said.
A spokesman for the Philippine mission to the UN in Haiti, Elmer Cato, told local media that rescuers had retrieved "several bodies" as well as injured survivors, although it was not clear if the bodies were recovered from the UN mission.
Initial estimates suggested a high death toll in the Haitian capital, an overcrowded city lined with shantytowns and notorious for its shoddy building standards.
"When we get an idea of the toll it will be measured in the hundreds," a local doctor, who was bloodied and nursing an injured left arm, told AFP.
Nations around the world offered aid and the United States, France, Canada and governments across Latin America geared to send help. Related article:World gears up to help Haiti
US President Barack Obama said: "My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake," as the State Department, Pentagon and US Southern Command began to put together aid teams.
The USGS said the epicenter was 15 kilometers (nine miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince.
USGS geophysicist Susan Potter said the last earthquake of such magnitude to strike Haiti occured in 1897, and possibly as far back as 1770.
She said that "right off the bat we knew that substantial damage was going to be very likely" from Tuesday\\\’s quake, in which the Caribbean plate and the North America plate ground together.
Already the poorest nation in the Americas, Haiti has been hit by a series of recent disasters.
Three hurricanes and a tropical storm pounded Haiti in 2008, killing 793 people and leaving more than 300 others missing, according to government figures.
The country was also gripped by a tense political standoff in 2008 amid riots over skyrocketing food prices. UN troops are a regular sight in the country.
Seventy percent of Haiti\\\’s population lives on less than two dollars per day, and half of its 8.5 million people are unemployed. Chronology:Major quakes and tsunamis