(NEW YORK) — With the death toll now nearing 1,300 people and thousands more injured after a devastating 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti Saturday morning, the beleaguered nation faces the threat of fast-approaching Tropical Storm Grace potentially exposing an already vulnerable population to a double impact in a matter of days.
Haiti’s Civil Protection agency announced Sunday that the death toll had jumped from more than 700 to at least 1,297. Initial reports indicate there are more than 700 collapsed buildings, including hospitals and schools, at least 3,778 homes destroyed and significant damage to infrastructure and roads.
Grace is forecast to make landfall in Haiti between Aug. 16 to 17.
“The people of Haiti are not only going to have to deal with this earthquake and its aftershocks but also this impending tropical storm,” United States Geological Survey geophysicist William Barnhart, from the Earthquake Hazards Program, said. “It’s honestly just a terrible situation.” Barnhart said there could be thousands of deaths from the disaster.
“The number of fatalities does not always make it out,” he told ABC News. “There’s a lot of time that has to go into recovering individuals from buildings and accessing areas and towns.”
The earthquake, according to USGS, struck about 5 miles north of Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti, a little over 90 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince.
There are also concerns that the earthquake could exacerbate the island’s COVID-19 infection rate should displaced people be forced into closer confines.
The Haitian government “believes high casualties are probable given the earthquake’s magnitude,” Bocchit Edmond, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement Saturday afternoon.
“Emergency responses are underway, and damages are being assessed,” Edmond added, saying destruction is “widespread.”
The embassy is helping to coordinate response efforts between the U.S. and Haitian governments.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke to Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry Sunday to express condolences for the disaster, according to a statement from Sherman’s office.
“Deputy Secretary Sherman reiterated our support for Haiti during this challenging time and underscored USAID’s leadership role in supporting U.S. assistance efforts in the aftermath of this tragedy,” the statement read.
The earthquake was virtually the same size and at the same shallow depth as the 2010 quake, and along the exact same fault line — the Enriquillo Plantain Garden — but farther west and in a less-populated region.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry is mobilizing government resources to help victims in affected areas and declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country. In a press conference, he said he wouldn’t ask for international help until officials assess the extent of the damages.
“It will be very bad, but maybe not quite as bad as 2010 just because Port-au-Prince is farther away from this one and therefore got less shaking this time,” said Dr. Lucy Jones, an earthquake expert.
She said that about 650,000 people have been exposed to level VII shaking, which the USGS defines as “very strong” and which is powerful enough to topple poorly built structures.
But many of the buildings that potentially would have been at risk from this quake were destroyed by the earthquake 11 years ago or by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, meaning fewer reports of extensive damage now aren’t entirely surprising, Jones added.
Groups like Community Organized Relief Effort are trying to help vaccinate locals to prevent COVID-19 spread.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said the organization’s disaster experts already on the ground in Haiti are assessing damage and humanitarian needs.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were briefed by the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and the Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the earthquake Saturday morning. The president authorized an immediate U.S. response, and named USAID Administrator Samantha Power as the senior U.S. official to coordinate this effort.
“In what is already a challenging time for the people of Haiti, I am saddened by the devastating earthquake that occurred in Saint-Louis du Sud, Haiti this morning,” Biden said in a statement. “We send our deepest condolences to all those who lost a loved one or saw their homes and businesses destroyed.”
“Through USAID, we are supporting efforts to assess the damage and assist efforts to recover those who were injured and those who must now rebuild,” he continued. “The United States remains a close and enduring friend to the people of Haiti, and we will be there in the aftermath of this tragedy.”
Power spoke to Henry, also the acting president of Haiti in the wake of Jovenel Moise’s assassination, Saturday evening about how USAID can assist the country. Earlier, the agency said a disaster assistance response team had been sent to the island.
USAID tweeted Sunday morning that “at the at the request of Haiti’s government” it has “deployed an urban search & rescue team to join our #Haiti earthquake disaster response team. This 65-person deployment brings 52,000 pounds of specialized tools, equipment & medical supplies to assist in search operations.”
While a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has tapered off, the possible displacement of thousands of people has created ripe conditions for a spike in COVID-19 infections, potentially overwhelming an already weak and overstretched health system that will also have to provide assistance to those injured by the earthquake.
Meanwhile, some celebrities and companies are offering aid to Haiti.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka posted on Twitter that she plans to donate her prize winnings to relief efforts in Haiti. “Really hurts to see all the devastation that’s going on,” she tweeted.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said that Cupertino would be donating to “assist relief and recovery efforts in the affected communites,” in a Sunday morning tweet.
Celebrity chef José Andrés tweeted Sunday that he and his organization, World Central Kitchen, have been on the ground in Haiti since yesterday providing food.
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