7.0 quake hits Haiti; could be 'catastrophe,' official says

(CNN) -- A major earthquake struck southern Haiti on Tuesday, knocking down buildings and inflicting a catastrophe on the impoverished Caribbean nation, its ambassador to the United States said.
"The only thing I can do now is pray and hope for the best," the ambassador, Raymond Alcide Joseph, told CNN.
The magnitude 7.0 quake struck about 10 miles (15 kilometers) southwest of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince shortly before 5 p.m. Joseph said he had little information about the extent of damage from the quake, but one government official -- the only one he was able to reach -- told him houses had crumbled "on the right side of the street and the left side of the street."
"He said it is a catastrophe of major proportions," Joseph said.
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A hospital collapsed from the quake, The Associated Press reported. Also, damage was done to an airport and the presidential palace, and a hotel collapsed, Haitian radio reported.

The quake damaged several other government buildings, including the parliament building, and a cathedral in the capital, according to Agence France-Presse, citing Haitian TV.

Frank Williams, the Haitian director of the relief agency World Vision International, said the quake left people "pretty much screaming" all around Port-au-Prince. He said the agency's building shook for about 35 seconds, "and portions of things on the building fell off."
"None of our staff were injured, but lots of walls are falling down," Williams said. "Many of our staff have tried to leave, but were unsuccessful because the walls from buildings and private residences are falling into the streets, so that it has pretty much blocked significantly most of the traffic."
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The quake was centered about 6 miles (10 kilometers) underground, according to the USGS. A magnitude 5.9 aftershock followed soon afterward, about 30 miles further west, followed by a 5.5 aftershock closer to the location of the first quake.

"There is a kind of wail as people are very frightened by it," Williams said of the aftershocks. "But most people are out in the streets and just kind of looking up."

The Rev. Kesner Ajax, executive director of a school in the southwestern city of Cayes, said several people were hurt when they rushed to get out of the building. Two homes in the area collapsed and the top of a church collapsed in a nearby town, he said, but he did not know of any fatalities.
Cayes, a city of about 400,000 people, is about 225 kilometers southwest of Port-au-Prince.

Luke Renner, an American staying in Cap-Hatien, a city nearly 100 miles north of Port-au-Prince, said he was sitting at his home when "the whole world started to shake."

"It felt like our whole house was balancing on a beach ball," Renner said. "We heard the whole community screaming and in an uproar during that whole 20- to 30-second window."

"I haven't seen any structural damage here," Renner continued. "With the sun setting it may be difficult to tell. In the morning we'll know for sure."
Because of the earthquake's proximity to the capital, and because the city is densely populated and has poorly constructed housing, "it could cause significant casualties," said Jian Lin, a senior geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

The disaster is the latest to befall Haiti, which has a population of about 9 million people and is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Hurricane Gordon killed more than 1,000 people in 1994, while Hurricane Georges killed more than 400 and destroyed the majority of the country's crops in 1998.

In 2004, heavy rains from Hurricane Jeanne -- which passed north of the country -- caused landslides and flooding that killed more than 3,000 people, mostly in the northwestern city of Gonaives. Gonaives was hit heavily again in 2008, when four tropical systems passed through.
A tsunami watch for Haiti, the Dominican Republic and parts of Cuba following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Haiti has been canceled, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

Eighty percent of Haiti's population lives under the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook.

CNN's Mallory Simon, Shasta Darlington, Pierre Meilhan, Mike Mount and Brandon Griggs contributed to this report.

Peace be upon you

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Ismael Lo

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7.0 quake hits Haiti; could be 'catastrophe,' official says - CNN.com