SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Dawn brought horrible scenes to light in Haiti’s capital on Wednesday: piles of disintegrated concrete, with limbs sticking out and muffled cries emanating from deep inside; wounded people staggering through the streets; and bodies littering the landscape.
Huge swaths of Port-au-Prince lay in ruins, and thousands of people were feared dead in the rubble of government buildings, foreign aid headquarters and shantytowns that collapsed a day earlier in a powerful earthquake.
The Haitian president, René Préval, told The Miami Herald that the toll was “unimaginable” and estimated that thousands had died. Among those feared dead were the chief of the United Nations mission in Haiti and Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
“Parliament has collapsed,” Mr. Préval was quoted as saying. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”
“All of the hospitals are packed with people,” he added. “It is a catastrophe.”
Haiti sits on a large fault that has caused catastrophic quakes in the past, but this one was described as among the most powerful to hit the region. The earthquake was the worst in the region in more than 200 years and left the country in a shambles, without electricity or phone service, tangling efforts to provide relief to an estimated 3 million people who the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said had been affected by the quake.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Haiti was now facing a “major humanitarian emergency” that would require a concerted international response.
President Obama promised that Haiti would have the “unwavering support” of the United States.
Mr. Obama said United States aid agencies were moving swiftly to get help to Haiti and that search-and-rescue teams were already en route. He described the reports of destruction as “truly heart-wrenching,” made more cruel given Haiti’s long-troubled circumstances.
Mr. Obama did not make a specific aid pledge, and administration officials said they were still trying to figure out what the island needed. But he urged Americans to dig into their pockets and to go to the White House’s Web site, www.whitehouse.gov , to find ways to donate money.
“This is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in the White House diplomatic reception room with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at his side.
Aid agencies said they would open their storehouses of food and water inside Haiti, and the World Food Program was flying in nearly 100 tons of emergency food from El Salvador. The United Nations said it was freeing up $10 million in emergency relief funds, the European Union pledged $4.4 million, and groups like Doctors Without Borders were setting up clinics in tents and open-air triage centers to treat the injured. But some aid groups with offices in Haiti’s capital were also busy searching for their own dead and missing.
Five workers with the United Nations mission in Haiti were killed and more than 100 more missing after the office’s headquarters collapsed in one of the deadliest single days for United Nations employees. The Tunisian head of the group’s Haitian mission, Hedi Annabi, and his deputy were among the missing, said Alain LeRoy, the United Nations peacekeeping chief.
Earlier Wednesday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said in radio interviews that Mr. Annabi had been killed in the collapse.
The Brazilian Army, which has one of the largest peacekeeping presences in Haiti, said that four of its soldiers had been killed in the quake and five had been injured. In addition to the human toll, the heavy damage sustained by Haiti’s presidential palace and the United Nations headquarters were a blow to the two major symbols of authority in the country.
“The palace was like something out of a fairy tale in a country that had nothing,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, a former adviser to the United Nations mission, who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It had red carpets and gold ropes. It was a symbol of one of the few institutions that works there, and that’s the presidency.”
On Wednesday the palace looked like a collapsed wedding cake, with its column-lined facade crumpled and its white domed roof caving in.
Paul McPhun, operations manager for Doctors Without Borders, described scenes of chaos.
When staff members tried to travel by car “they were mobbed by crowds of people,” Mr. McPhun said. “They just want help, and anybody with a car is better off than they are.”
He said that the main hospitals in Port-au-Prince had either collapsed or been abandoned because they were too structurally precarious.
“Our teams are managing what comes to them, but already we’re getting overwhelmed,” he said. “We’re struggling to manage. It’s a very chaotic situation. Information for us is very difficult to gather.”
Aid workers and journalists in the neighboring Dominican Republic swarmed the airport in Santo Domingo, hoping to catch a few emergency flights into Haiti, and a spokesman for the United Nations humanitarian office said aid would be sent into the country on commercial flights.
The Associated Press reported that the Port-au-Prince airport was open, but that the main road connecting it to the capital remained impassable. Other roads had been torn apart in the quake or were blocked by debris, making it more difficult to transport food, fresh water and first aid supplies, and hospitals were overwhelmed by the injured. In a place where there are constant blackouts, the electricity remained out during the early hours Wednesday, and telephones were not working.
More than 30 significant aftershocks of a 4.5 magnitude or higher rattled Haiti through the night and into the early morning, according to Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey. “We’ve seen a lot of shaking still happening,” she said.
Bob Poff, a Salvation Army official, said in a written account posted on the Salvation Army’s Web site how he had loaded injured victims — “older, scared, bleeding and terrified” — into the back of his truck and set off in search of help. In two hours, he managed to travel less than a mile, he said.
The account described how Mr. Poff and hundreds of neighbors spent the night outside, in the playground near a children’s home run by the group. Every tremor sent ripples of fear through the survivors, providing “another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity,” he wrote.
“And when it comes, all of the people cry out and the children are terrified,” he wrote. Louise Ivers, the clinical director of the aid group Partners in Health, said in an e-mail to her colleagues: “Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS . . . Temporary field hospital by us at UNDP needs supplies, pain meds, bandages. Please help us.”
A hospital collapsed in Pétionville, a hillside district in Port-au-Prince that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians, a videographer for The Associated Press said. Photos from Haiti on Wednesday showed a hillside scraped nearly bare of its houses, which had tumbled into the ravine below.
Tequila Minsky, a photographer who was in Port-au-Prince, said a wall at the front of the Hotel Oloffson had fallen, killing a passer-by. A number of nearby buildings had crumbled, trapping people, she said, and a Unibank bank building was badly damaged. People were screaming.
“It was general mayhem,” Ms. Minsky said.
The earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the United States Geological Survey said.
Haiti’s many man-made woes — its dire poverty, political infighting and proclivity for insurrection — have been exacerbated repeatedly by natural disasters. At the end of 2008, four hurricanes flooded whole towns, knocked out bridges and left a destitute population in even more desperate conditions.