By Laura Gottesdiener
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Doctors and aid workers rushed to get flights or transport to southwestern Haiti ahead of a storm on Monday to reach areas flattened by a major earthquake that killed at least 1,297 people and injured thousands more in the Caribbean nation.
Saturday’s 7.2 magnitude quake brought down thousands of homes and buildings in the deeply impoverished country, which is still recovering from another major temblor 11 years ago and the assassination of its president, Jovenel Moise, last month.
The areas in and around the city of Les Cayes suffered the biggest hit, putting enormous strain on local hospitals, some of which were badly damaged by the quake.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry said there was no time to lose.
“From this Monday, we will move faster. Aid provision is going to be accelerated,” he wrote on Twitter. “We will multiply efforts tenfold to reach as many victims as possible with aid.”
Port-au-Prince airport on Monday was bustling with medics and aid workers, with domestic and private charter flights filled with humanitarian teams and supplies headed south.
Access to the area has been complicated by months of political turmoil in Haiti, which has left gangs in control of key access routes to parts of the country.
The United Nations called for a “humanitarian corridor” to enable aid to pass through gang-held territories.
Aid workers were hurrying to beat the arrival of Tropical Depression Grace, which early on Monday was moving west-northwest off the southern coast of Hispaniola, the island that Haiti shares with the neighboring Dominican Republic.
According to projections by the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC), Grace will pass right through areas directly hit by the quake, and could douse them with heavy rain. Skies over Port-au-Prince were still clear early on Monday.
Many Haitians who lost their homes have been sleeping outdoors, many traumatized by memories of a magnitude 7 quake 11 years ago that struck far closer to Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Thousands of people sleeping in the streets would be exposed to rains amid a rising risk of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, according to Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency.
“We do have a serious issue,” Chandler said on Sunday.
He said boats and helicopters were being used to bring in aid, but the government was working to establish safe access by road. Initial supplies have made it through by land.
In Jeremie, to the northwest of Les Cayes, doctors were forced to treat injured patients on hospital stretchers underneath trees and on mattresses by the side of the road.
Churches, hotels and schools were also seriously damaged or ruined in the quake. Some 13,694 houses were destroyed, the civil protection agency said, and the toll could rise further.
In Les Cayes, a seafront town of some 90,000 people, rescuers in red hard hats and blue overalls pulled bodies from the tangled wreckage of one building, as a yellow mechanical excavator nearby helped to shift the rubble.
Nearby countries rushed to send food and medicines. Colombia dispatched search and rescue personnel. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday morning his country would continue to provide support to Haiti.
The United States sent vital supplies and deployed a 65-member urban search-and-rescue team with specialized equipment, said Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The death toll is expected to rise because the telephone network has been down in more remote areas. In difficult-to-reach villages, many houses were fragile and built on slopes vulnerable to landslides, said Alix Percinthe of the ActionAid charity.
(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jonathan Oatis)