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

Haitians in Les Cayes assess the damage Sunday after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck a day earlier.
Richard Pierrin
Getty Images
Haitians in Les Cayes assess the damage Sunday after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck a day earlier.

Updated August 16, 2021 at 5:08 PM ET

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 Caribbean nation's southwest after a devastating earthquake.

As of late Monday afternoon, officials said the death toll had risen to 1,419 and some 6,000 reportedly are injured. The magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck early Saturday is the deadliest one to hit the country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, since January 2010.

But Saturday's quake rocked a relatively sparsely populated region of Haiti, and officials hope 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 of 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, told 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 was 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 has caved in. But he's luckier than many – he's alive and the damage to his house was "not that bad," compared with many of his neighbors.

Stfirmin said "many" died in Les Cayes, but he doesn't know the exact number.

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

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 said Saturday's earthquake was worse: "During Matthew, we expected it. This came unexpectedly."

The quake has contaminated the local water supply, he said. 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''

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

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

The prime minister's office said 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 Haiti's office for civil protection, said the needs right now are vast, but the priority is getting medical care for people injured by falling debris.

"We have a lot of trauma patients that are still not attended," he told 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 said.

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, told the AP that he believes two or three others 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 ward off the sun, the AP reported.

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 Sunday outside Les Cayes General Hospital.

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

Reached by NPR in Les Cayes, Tanis said 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 Jérémie, 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 told NPR.

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

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

But Chandler said 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 convoy of trucks through a section of road that's notorious for hijackings.

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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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