A major earthquake rattled southwestern Haiti Saturday morning, tumbling buildings and sending residents fleeing into the streets 11 years after a catastrophic earthquake hit the capital and killed somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people.
The epicenter of the earthquake, which preliminary readings registered at a magnitude of 7.2, was located near Les Cayes, a port city of more than 70,000 residents near the country’s southwestern tip about 78 miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince.
Photos and videos shared on social media show collapsed buildings, and streets filled with debris. Shocked residents scrambled for safety while others formed informal rescue teams to dig out people trapped under rubble.
The initial reported death toll was 29, according to Haiti’s civil protection agency, which was quoted by the Associated Press, but that number is likely to rise.
On Twitter, Haiti’s prime minister, Dr. Ariel Henry, said there had been “loss of life” in various parts of the country and extended his sympathy to the relatives of the victims. Among the dead was a former senator, Jean Gabriel Fortuné, who was trapped under his hotel in Les Cayes when it collapsed.
Frantz Duval, an editor at Le Nouvelliste, a Haitian newspaper, tweeted that the majority of hotels and churches in the towns of the country’s southern coast had collapsed or suffered significant damage.
Immaculate Conception Hospital in Les Cayes issued a call for help on Haitian radio station Magik9, asking for assistance from more doctors and nurses to treat the injured.
If the magnitude is confirmed, then it would be slightly stronger than the 7.0 earthquake in 2010 that devastated Port-au-Prince. The country has never fully rebuilt from that earthquake. The region where Saturday’s earthquake struck was severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, destroying entire communities and killing an estimated 1,000 people.
According to the United States Geological Survey, at least four strong aftershocks followed the first earthquake this morning, which hit at 8:29 am local time. Haiti’s civil protection agency said there was no immediate risk of a tsunami.
The earthquake comes amid a deep political crisis that was sharpened by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 in a raid on his home by mercenaries. Many questions remain about who ordered the hit on the president, and an election to replace him that was scheduled for late September has been pushed back to November 7.
A tropical storm currently located east of Puerto Rico could bring heavy winds and rainfall to Haiti early next week, potentially complicating relief efforts.