Strong earthquake rocks Haiti. Tsunami alert issued

A quake measuring 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale rocked the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti causing panic as it struck, officials and witnesses say.

A tsunami alert was immediately issued for the Caribbean region after the earthquake struck at 2153 GMT (0853 AEDT).

An AFP correspondent said the ground shook for more than a minute. Just minutes later two aftershocks measuring both 5.9 and 5.5 on the moment magnitude scale hit, US officials said.

US ready to assist: Obama

President Barack Obama says the United States stood “ready to assist” Haiti.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been affected by this earthquake. We are closely monitoring the situation and we stand ready to assist the people of Haiti,” he said.

Quake ‘a major catastrophe’

“I think it’s really a catastrophe of major proportions,” the country’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Alcide Joseph, told CNN television.

The ambassador said he was heartbroken as he had just spoken by telephone with a senior presidential aide who described scenes of chaos and devastation.

“He had to stop his car just about half an hour ago, and take to the streets, start walking, but he said houses were crumbling on the right side of the street and the left side of the street,” Joseph said.

“He does not know whether he would reach his home, not knowing what he would find, because he had a bridge to cross to get there.”

The US Geological Survey said the powerful quake was initially measured at 7.3 on the scale and struck 16 kilometres from the capital Port-Au-Prince, and 27 kilometres from Petionville.

An AFP correspondent in Petionville said one three-story building, housing two offices, was toppled, and a tractor was already at the scene trying to dig out victims as people fled onto the streets in panic.

The up-scale area is home to many foreign diplomats and members of a major United Nations mission to the country.

The temblor struck at a depth of 10 kilometres, the USGS said.

Tsunami warning

A tsunami warning was in place for Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, with the first waves predicted to hit Haiti shortly.

The ambassador told CNN he was heartbroken as he had just spoken by telephone with a senior presidential aide who described scenes of chaos and devastation.

“He had to stop his car just about half an hour ago, and take to the streets, start walking, but he said houses were crumbling on the right side of the street and the left side of the street,” Joseph said.

“He does not know whether he would reach his home, not knowing what he would find, because he had a bridge to cross to get there.”

A US Coast Guard spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson in Florida said they did not have much information yet, saying they had not yet been able to contact their office in Haiti.

“We haven’t taken any measure in the area so far. We don’t have any information rather that what we got from the news,” she told AFP.

“We couldn’t contact our officer there yet, so we are waiting to have more information in a couple of hours.”

Already the poorest nation in the Americas, Haiti has been hit by a series of disasters recently and was battered by hurricanes in 2008.

The country was also gripped by a tense political standoff in April 2008 amid riots over skyrocketing food prices.

Seventy per cent of Haiti’s population lives on less than two dollars per day and half of its 8.5 million people are unemployed. According to official figures, food insecurity already affects more than a quarter of Haiti’s population, some 1.9 million people, with women and children the worst affected.

Haiti economically vulnerable

The Food and Agriculture Organisation has designated Haiti as one of the world’s most economically vulnerable countries.

The WFP serves one meal a day to more than 500,000 Haitian schoolchildren, providing them with what is often their only meal of the day.

The organisation also feeds 100,000 women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and 50,000 children under the age of five.

Since mid-2004, the Brazilian-led MINUSTAH has been keeping the peace in the impoverished Caribbean island nation.

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