One of the most powerful earthquakes to ever hit the region slammed impoverished Haiti, leaving the nation in chaos and the global community scrambling to assess the damage and bring aid.
Cinderblock slums collapsed in cascading layers of concrete and dust, government buildings were reduced to rubble and panicked crowds were left trapped, homeless or in the dark as night fell in areas with few emergency resources.
The 7.0 earthquake hit about 16 kilometres southwest of the densely populated capital Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon. Powerful aftershocks continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning, creating confusion on the ground and internationally as power and communication signals were knocked out across the country.
Reports said thousands were feared dead but it was impossible to assess the extensive damage. Reports came in that among the many buildings that came crashing to the ground, including a hospital in nearby Pétionville that trapped people, screaming, beneath.
The International Federation of the Red Cross estimated that up to three million people have been affected by the powerful earthquake. Spokesman Paul Conneally told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it would take 24-48 hours before a clear picture emerges of the scale of the destruction.
Port-au-Prince's gleaming white presidential palace was reduced to lopsided rubble and the headquarters of the United Nations' peace-building mission were extensively damaged.
President Rene Preval and his wife survived the earthquake, according to Robert Manuel, Haiti's ambassador to Mexico. He said he had no other details.
Much of the country's phone system - both land lines and mobile phones - remained down into early Wednesday morning, leaving international officials and aid agencies in the dark as they tried to determine the extent of devastation in a country still in the grips of political turmoil and recovering from devastating hurricanes less than two years ago.
"The situation is quite precarious - this will have a devastating effect," said Isabelle Marin, a disaster manager with the Red Cross.
Ottawa resident David Moore was in Port-au-Prince visiting his partner, who was at work in the Canadian embassy, when their house began shaking violently.
"I have never experienced anything like it," Mr. Moore said via e-mail. "I thought the house was going to collapse on top of me. I ran outdoors and into the clear."
Once outside, Mr. Moore could see nothing but enormous clouds of dust in most directions.
Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, called the scene of devastation "a catastrophe of major proportions," in a telephone call with CNN from Port-au-Prince late Tuesday afternoon.
The quake left hundreds of thousands of Haitian-Canadians in a state of tense confusion as calls to friends and relatives went unanswered. A local doctor told Agence France-Presse the deaths were in the hundreds, and the Red Cross said hospitals are at capacity with people desperately seeking medical attention in the under-resourced region.
The United Nations, which has had a peace-building team in Haiti for decades, said it was unable to account for a many of its staff on the ground.
The Port-au-Prince headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, as well as several other UN installations, were severely damaged in the quake. Canada has been an active player in continuing peacekeeping in Haiti, and as of February, 2009, the RCMP had close to 100 UNPOL officers serving with the stabilization mission.
"For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for," said spokesman Alain Le Roy.
Many UN personnel were missing, he said, including mission chief Hedi Annabi, who was in the building when the quake struck. "We know there will be casualties but we cannot give figures for the time being," he said.
France's foreign minister says UN mission chief in Haiti appears to have died in quake. Five Canadians are attached to the mission but they survived the quake, Lt.-Col. Chris Lemay said from Ottawa early Wednesday.
A state newspaper in China said eight Chinese peacekeepers serving in Haiti were known dead and 10 were missing - though officials later said the information was not confirmed. Jordan's official news agency said three of its peacekeepers were killed and 21 others injured.
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said he wasn't able to reach Haiti's Foreign Minister but had been in touch with Canadian Ambassador Claude Boucher, who said that, as far as he knows, no Canadians were among those killed.
"From the preliminary assessment the ambassador gave to us, I can say we don't have any information that would lead us to believe Canadians have been affected," Mr. Cannon said.
The Canadian embassy has been evacuated as a precautionary measure and Mr. Cannon urged the estimated 6,000 Canadians in Haiti to contact family and friends in Canada to assure them they're all right. Mr. Cannon said friends and family of Canadians in Haiti can call the emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 1-800-387-3124 for assistance.
Canada has yet to decide whether to send its Disaster Assistance Response Team to the quake-torn area - officials still need to assess the damage and available equipment, he said.
The relief team came under fire several years ago for failing to respond quickly to a tsunami that swept Sri Lanka and other countries in 2004.
Other nations were quick to pledge support Tuesday: French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France is preparing to urgently dispatch aid to Haiti.
U.S. President Barack Obama said his administration is "ready to assist" the quake-ravaged country. The Department of State, USAID and the U.S. Southern Command are assessing the damage and need for assistance.
"My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake," Mr. Obama said in a statement.
The Red Cross's Ms. Marin, speaking with The Globe from Panama, said she's going with an emergency Red Cross team to Haiti on Wednesday.
"We're monitoring the situation right now with the Haitian Red Cross. … We've started co-ordinating efforts for search and rescue, which is the first thing we do following this type of disaster," she said, adding that the airport is functioning, although she wasn't sure about road access between communities.
"The next 24 hours are critical. Aftershocks can obviously create more damage so it's something that needs to be monitored very closely."
Canadian charity CARE was among many Canadian agencies struggling to contact its teams in Haiti, where it has about 100 people working on multiple projects, largely in rural areas, including hurricane relief following the 2008 storms.
"We have been completely unable to establish contact with our people down there," spokesman Kieran Green said.
Haitian-born Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, who last visited Haiti in January 2009, said she's following the unfolding disaster "with great attention and concern.
"This natural disaster has hit a country with an extremely fragile infrastructure, where many buildings are already unstable, and where living conditions are often very difficult. I fear for its people," she said. "I would like all Haitians to know that they are not alone and that the people of Canada will respond to this emergency."
Photos posted online depicted bloodied, maddened Haitians caked in dust and struggling through rubble, or staring in shock at the devastation before them.
Aftershocks continued late into the night, Mr. Moore said, "so the tension is still quite high." Many people were planning to sleep outdoors, he said.
The earthquake's devastating effect is magnified by the notoriously abysmal infrastructure in much of the country.
"This is frightening as there are so many poorly built houses built almost on top of one another on the sides of hills," Mr. Moore said. "I can only imagine that many have collapsed."
With reports from the Associated Press and The Canadian Press