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Rescue workers in Haiti were trying to treat the injured and reach people trapped under rubble after a strong earthquake and before the arrival of tropical storm Grace, which was expected to hit the Caribbean island nation on Monday.
Authorities in the capital Port-au-Prince said at least 724 people were killed and 2,800 injured by Saturday’s magnitude 7.2 quake, which was stronger than the devastating tremor that killed tens of thousands of people in 2010.
Nearly all those who died were in the three provinces of Grand’Anse, Nippes and Sud in the west of the country. They lie at the end of a long peninsula, access to which is complicated by the presence of armed gangs.
“One of the main challenges is the extreme complexity of gang blocks that do not allow easy access to affected areas,” said Elian Giaccarini of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which was helping with aid efforts. “We are also concerned about the pending storm Grace.”
The storm has been building in the Caribbean for days and Haiti lies in its path. The US National Hurricane Center warned it would probably arrive on Monday night bringing heavy rainfall that “could lead to flash and urban flooding”. Haiti was devastated in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, which killed hundreds of people and caused $2.8bn of damage.
“We’re deeply concerned that it will worsen what is already a very bad situation,” Akim Kikonda, an aid worker for the Catholic Relief Services, told the Financial Times from Port-au-Prince. “We haven’t had time to catch our breath yet and here comes Grace.”
In Rome, Pope Francis urged people to pray for Haitians. “May the solidarity of all alleviate the consequences of the tragedy,” he said.
Not only was Saturday’s quake bigger than the one in 2010, it was shallower, which usually intensifies a tremor’s impact. However, it was also further from the capital, raising hopes the death toll would not be as high. The epicentre was 150km west of Port-au-Prince near the town of Petit Trou de Nippes.
“Nippes and the surrounding area is rural with high rates of poverty and hunger,” said Cara Buck, acting country director in Haiti for the international aid organisation Mercy Corps.
One video from the area showed two children, a girl and a boy, being pulled to safety from under a collapsed building.
Another showed residents running from their homes as water gushed through the streets. A Tsunami warning was raised across much of the Caribbean but later lifted. The quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and as far away as Cuba and Jamaica.
Some survivors slept outside overnight and there were several aftershocks, including one with a magnitude of 5.8.
The earthquake comes at a desperate time for Haiti. Last month, the country’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, raising uncertainty over his succession and heightening political tensions just months before elections are due to be held.
“Now, it is likely that elections will be postponed once again amid the widespread destruction.” said Wazim Mowla, assistant director of the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington.
Haiti’s prime minister Ariel Henry, who has been in the post less than a month, declared a state of emergency while in Washington President Joe Biden ordered an immediate US response.
Haiti has never truly recovered from the 2010 quake, which killed up to 300,000 people, left thousands more homeless and caused about $8bn in damage — equivalent to 120 per cent of gross domestic product.
The country has also been hit by man-made disasters. UN peacekeepers who were deployed after the 2010 quake inadvertently sparked an outbreak of cholera by contaminating a major water source. The disease has killed about 10,000 Haitians since then.
As the latest relief effort gathered pace, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian, said she would donate all her prize money from an upcoming tournament to help the country.
“I know our ancestors’ blood is strong,” she tweeted. “We’ll keep rising.”