The nearest big town was Les Cayes, where many buildings collapsed or suffered major damage, according to authorities.
“I saw bodies being pulled out of the rubble, injured and perhaps dead people,” said Les Cayes resident Jean Marie Simon, 38, who was at the market when the earthquake struck and ran home to see if his family was safe. “I heard cries of pain everywhere I passed through.”
His wife and 2-year-old child had been bathing and rushed out to the street, naked, just before the front of the house crumbled. Simon gave his wife his shirt and they took refuge in the courtyard of a church with other locals. His mother’s house had also collapsed.
“There are a lot of aftershocks and every time there’s one, people run and shout,” he said. “My legs are still trembling.”
Videos posted to social media showed citizens pulling others from debris and crowds of people waiting for medical attention at overwhelmed hospitals.
USGS said a significant amount of the population was at risk of landslides, with road obstructions likely. Haiti’s Civil Protection service said a landslide had blocked the highway between Les Cayes and the town of Jeremie.
Likely to complicate relief efforts is the fact Haiti is now in the probable track of Tropical Storm Grace, which could bring heavy rains and winds early next week.
Also, access by road to the southern region, where the quake struck, has been restricted by gang control of key areas although Henry said police would accompany any convoys going to the south.
‘NEVER A BREAK’
The earthquake comes just over a month after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, who had been ruling by decree, which deepened the country’s political turmoil.
Meanwhile, swaths of Haiti are facing growing hunger and healthcare services are already overwhelmed by COVID-19.
That region had only recently recovered from Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016, killing hundreds and causing widespread devastation.
“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.
“It’s going to take years to fix things and we have not even started!”
In Port-au-Prince, residents traumatised 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 sent shock waves 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.
US President Joe Biden said he had authorised an immediate US response and named Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, coordinator of the effort.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also said he was ordering the government to prepare immediate relief.