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In Quake-Ravaged Haiti, Rescuers Scramble To Save People Trapped In Rubble

Haitians in Les Cayes assess the damage on Sunday after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti.
Richard Pierrin
Getty Images
Haitians in Les Cayes assess the damage on Sunday after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti.

Search-and-rescue teams are pulling people from collapsed buildings in Haiti, as international aid efforts ramped up in the hardest hit areas in the southwest of the Caribbean nation after a devastating earthquake.

As of Monday afternoon, officials say that at least 1,297 people are confirmed dead in the latest devastation, and at least 5,700 more are injured. The magnitude 7.2-earthquake that struck early Saturday is the deadliest one since Jan. 2010 to hit the country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

But Saturday's quake rocked a relatively sparsely populated region of Haiti and officials hope that the death toll — as bad as it already is — will be far less than the roughly 200,000 people who died in and around the capital Port-au-Prince 11 years ago.

The quake struck 'like a lion in the jungle'

Gladimy Stfirmin, a 34-year-old student living in the city of Les Cayes, near the epicenter, tells NPR that the shaking he experienced Saturday morning seemed like "a lion in the jungle."

"Everything was moving — houses, cars — and everyone was crying," he said by telephone from the city. He had just woken up and about to go outside when he felt a small vibration — then "disaster."

His bedroom now has a large crack in the back wall and his kitchen is caved in. But he's luckier than many – he's alive and the damage to his house was "not that bad" compared to many of his neighbors.

Stfirmin says "many" died in Les Cayes, but he doesn't know how many.

"There were people who were stuck. Blocks were falling down [on them]," he says.

Stfirmin lived through Hurricane Matthew, the center of which passed not far from Les Cayes, a city of around 125,000 people, five years ago. He says Saturday's earthquake is worse: "During Matthew, we expected it. This came unexpectedly."

The quake has contaminated the local water supply, he says. Les Cayes also needs food and shelter, "because people are sleeping outside" – just as tropical depression Grace is bearing down over southwestern Haiti.

'Basically, they need everything'

Dr. Inobert Pierre is a pediatrician with the nonprofit Health Equity International, which oversees St. Boniface Hospital, about two hours from Les Cayes. He tells The Associated Press that, "Basically, they need everything."

"Many of the patients have open wounds and they have been exposed to not-so-clean elements," he says.

The prime minister's office says 13,694 houses were destroyed by the quake and its aftermath, and 13,585 houses were damaged. Hospitals and schools have also been damaged or destroyed.

Jerry Chandler, the head of the office for civil protection for Haiti, says the needs right now are vast, but the first priority is getting medical care for people injured by falling debris.

"We have a lot of trauma patients that are still not attended," he tells NPR. "A lot of the hospitals that are in the region that was affected [are] either overrun or affected themselves structurally."

Goods are being shipped by boat, in small planes and helicopters on loan from the Dominican Republic and the U.S., he says.

Digging through the rubble

Digging through the rubble of a hotel in Les Cayes, rescuers on Monday found the bodies of 15 people. Jean Moise Fortunè, whose brother, the hotel owner, was killed in the quake, tells the AP that he believes two or three more are still trapped in the ruins.

At a soccer field in Les Cayes, families who lost their homes in the quake erected sheets suspended from sticks to keep off the sun, the AP reports.

Patients are tended to outside Les Cayes General Hospital after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Sunday in Les Cayes.
Richard Pierrin / Getty Images
Getty Images
Patients are tended to outside Les Cayes General Hospital after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Sunday in Les Cayes.

Wagner Tanis, who lives on Île-à-Vache, situated in the middle of a southern bay near Les Cayes, says there was a lot of damage on the island, but he is unaware of any deaths there.

Reached by NPR in Les Cayes, Tanis says he was in the stricken city because it's the closest place for the people of Île-à-Vache "to get money to buy food."

"Many houses in Île-à-Vache are destroyed," he says. "I know many people, [whose] houses [are] damaged."

In the city of Jeremie, about 60 miles north of Les Cayes and located on the same southern peninsula, roads were cut off by the quake, cleared and then made impassable again by aftershock-triggered mudslides.

"We are using boats. We are using the helicopters and the airplanes as much as possible," Chandler tells NPR.

And, for the moment, the road is open, he says.

The quake comes as Haiti is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, rising gang violence, and political instability in the wake of the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

But Chandler says the gangs appear to have backed off since the quake, possibly for humanitarian reasons. As a result, over the weekend he was able to get a single convoy of trucks through a section of road that's notorious for hijackings.

NPR's Jason Beaubien contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.