As the world scrambled to respond to the massive earthquake in Haiti, the scene in its densely populated capital was one of chaos and devastation that completely overwhelmed the country's threadbare emergency resources. Gunshots rang out as night fell and widespread looting was reported.
It remained impossible on Wednesday to ascertain the number of people killed by the 7.0-magnitude quake, but Haitian President René Préval said casualties could extend into the hundreds of thousands.
Father Maurice Piquard of the Montfortaint congregation in Port-au-Prince spent Tuesday night outside and woke to a scene of destruction.
"No neighbourhood is spared … the entire city is destroyed," he said, adding that many of his students were crushed beneath buildings and he's still trying to find missing colleagues.
"We can't do anything, we are completely destitute in the face of the magnitude of the catastrophe. A mob of people is … waiting for rescue that won't come until tomorrow, or maybe the day after ... or later.
"The deaths are innumerable, the wounded wait for help that does not come."
Georges Anglade, a Montreal university professor and a minister in Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government, and his wife, Mireille, were confirmed dead late Wednesday night.
Their daughter, Dominique Anglade, told The Globe late Wednesday night her family believes the couple was crushed along with two other relatives in the family home in Port-au-Prince, where they were visiting.
The Anglades are the second and third Canadians to die in the catastrophic earthquake. The other victim was Elmira, Ont., nurse Yvonne Martin, who arrived in Haiti's capital on Tuesday afternoon, about 90 minutes before the earthquake hit.
The first shipments of international aid, supplies and emergency crews are beginning to hit the ground in the quake-pummelled region surrounding Port-au-Prince. It's now a race against time to rescue and treat as many survivors as possible in the wake of the region's worst earthquake in centuries, in a place that lacks first-responders of its own. Survivors were digging through twisted wreckage with bare and bloodied hands well past dark, searching for those trapped beneath concrete blocks and crushed buildings.
Among the missing are two members of Canada's 82-person contingent in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a former Liberal MP and an IT consultant from Montreal.
The two Mounties are Superintendent Douglas Coates of Ottawa, co-ordinator for the UN mission in Haiti, and RCMP Sergeant Mark Gallagher from Halifax. The missing former politician, Serge Marcil, now works for a Montreal engineering firm. He was supposed to have checked in Tuesday afternoon at the Hotel Montana, a well-known tourist destination that was destroyed, leaving hundreds missing.
Also staying at the Montana was Alexandre Bitton, who worked for the Montreal IT firm ADNM International and remained unaccounted for on Wednesday.
Doctors Without Borders said Wednesday it has "grave concerns" for four Canadian staff in Haiti. "We have not accounted for all our staff," said spokesman Paul McPhun. "We are very concerned about the welfare and safety of our staff, both international and national."
The prominent UN mission in Haiti - effectively the country's only operational security force - was neutralized with the destruction of its headquarters. UN staff said at least 14 personnel are missing, although reports differed as to whether Hedi Annabi, head of the mission, was dead or alive.
Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, a native of Haiti, broke down in tears at a briefing with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials. "People are stuck in the rubble, and there is nothing to help people get out. Hospitals, schools are destroyed, people are in the street with nothing."
Chaos reigned more than 30 hours after the first tremors convulsed the island nation Tuesday, and powerful aftershocks continued well into Wednesday evening.
Many areas were without power, the country's phone system remained down and obtaining drinking water was difficult. Many hospitals collapsed and virtually every building taller than one storey was reduced to rubble.
Commitments of aid have poured in from across the world as countries commit to sending money and rescue teams to help with the first response.
Canada has committed $5-million in aid, as well as its Disaster Assistance Response Team. Quebec has pledged its own emergency crews.
The United States is sending ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit; Israel, Germany, Spain and numerous other countries have pledged their own rescue teams. A 37-person search-and-rescue team from Iceland landed in Port-au-Prince. The UN has committed $10-million from its emergency coffers.
But as international organizations struggled to begin work in the quake-effected area it became clear that any emergency rescue efforts will be maddeningly slow, hampered by destroyed infrastructure that's grossly inadequate at the best of times. Streets and roads, when not blocked by rubble, are crowded by those left homeless by the quake.
What would be a large-scale disaster at the best of times is made far worse because Haiti lacks any emergency responders of its own, says Daniel Kaniewski, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"The citizens are the first responders. … The unfortunate reality is that the citizens of Haiti are largely going to be on their own for the next several days."
Although this first wave of emergency personnel will help, dispensing them to the devastated region, Mr. Kaniewski said, will be "a drop in the bucket."
What's needed is heavy equipment such as bulldozers and cranes, as well as mobile hospitals to treat the wounded. But by the time those arrive and are operational, it may be too late for many of those now crushed under rubble. The vast majority of earthquake survivors are found within the first 48 hours after an initial tremor. After that, rescue missions become body-recovery operations.
"It's a very chaotic situation," Mr. McPhun of Médecins Sans Frontières said in a conference call.
With one of its three clinics collapsed and the other two structurally damaged, MSF staff were working from tents.
The catastrophic quake came at a profoundly ironic time for the beleaguered country: "Haiti had been on a roll," said Robert Perito, senior program officer, for the New York-based Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations.
Long-term recovery efforts in the wake of devastating hurricanes in 2008 put Haiti closer to a functioning, independent government than it had been in years. The economy was showing real growth "for the first time in a long time."
"This is an enormous setback - both the tragedy of the destruction and the loss of life but also the psychological impact that it will have because I think most people thought Haiti had finally turned the corner," Mr. Kaniewski said.
In addition to the staggering human toll, the protracted fallout will likely render February elections impossible, and could return the country being ungovernable.
The death toll may be particularly high for children, who would have been in school in the late afternoon when the earthquake hit, said Sophie Perez, country director for CARE Haiti.
"There are many children trapped. It's horrifying," she said when reached by phone. "The slums on the hills have also completely collapsed. We've heard of landslides, with entire communities being wiped out. My children are terrified. Everyone is terrified."
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and The Associated Press