A major earthquake reduced buildings to rubble and caused at least several fatalities in southwestern Haiti on Saturday, sending shock waves across the Caribbean, where people fled their homes for fear they might collapse.
The 7.2-magnitude quake, which was followed by a series of aftershocks, struck 8 km (5 miles) from the town of Petit Trou de Nippes, about 150 km west of the capital Port-au-Prince, at a depth of 10 km, the USGS said.
That made the earthquake potentially bigger and shallower than the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti 11 years ago. That quake killed tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people, flattening buildings and leaving many homeless in what was already the poorest nation in the Americas.
This one – which occurred around 8:30 a.m. local time – hit farther away from the capital, however. In Port-au-Prince, it was strongly felt but did not appear to have caused major damage, according to Reuters witnesses, meaning there will likely be fewer fatalities than the devastating 2010 disaster.
The nearest big town was Les Cayes, with a population of around 126,000, where two residents told Reuters a major hotel and other buildings had collapsed.
“I present my sympathies to the parents of the victims of this violent earthquake that has caused the loss of several lives and material damage in various provinces,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry said on Twitter, in the first official confirmation of fatalities.
USGS said “high casualties are probable and the disaster is likely widespread.”
In Les Cayes, locals said water had briefly flooded the coastal town, causing panic amid fear of a tsunami, but then appeared to retreat. Haitian media outlets reported some people along the coast had already fled to the mountains.
The US Tsunami Warning System issued a tsunami warning after the quake, lifting it shortly thereafter.
The earthquake comes as Haiti is already mired in intertwined political, humanitarian and security crises.
The government is in turmoil, a month after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, while swaths of the country are facing growing hunger and healthcare services are overwhelmed by Covid-19. Access to the southern region, where the quake struck, has been restricted by gang control of key areas.
That region had only recently recovered from Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016, killing hundreds and causing widespread devastation. Haiti is now in the cone of Tropical Storm Grace which could bring heavy rains early next week.
“This country just never finds a break! Each year of mismanagement did not hurt but the cumulative effects made us vulnerable to everything,” said Haitian entrepreneur Marc Alain Boucicault on Twitter.
“Its going to take years to fix things and we have not even started!”
In Port-au-Prince, residents traumatized by the 2010 quake rushed, screaming, into the streets and stayed there as the aftershocks rumbled on.
“In my neighbourhood, I heard people screaming. They were flying outside,” said resident Sephora Pierre Louis. “At least they know to go outside. In 2010, they didn’t know what to do. People are still outside in the street.”
The quake was felt as far as Cuba and Jamaica although there were no reports of material damage, deaths or injuries there.
“Everyone is really afraid. It’s been years since such a big earthquake,” said Daniel Ross, a resident in the eastern Cuban city of Guantanamo.
He said his home stood firm but the furniture shook.
“I feel it, man. It wake me up. My roof kind of make some noise,” said Danny Bailey, 49, in Kingston.
The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) also reported a quake in the region, saying it was magnitude 7.6, while Cuba’s seismological centre said it registered a magnitude of 7.4.