A powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake has struck Haiti, killing at least 227 people and toppling buildings in the disaster-plagued Caribbean nation still recovering from a devastating 2010 quake.
The figure was announced by the country's Civil Protection Service, which also said hundreds more people were either wounded or had disappeared in the wake of the quake.
The epicentre of the shaking, which rattled homes and sent terrified locals scrambling for safety, was about 160km by road west of the centre of the densely populated capital Port-au-Prince.
"Lots of homes are destroyed, people are dead and some are at the hospital," 21-year-old Christella Saint Hilaire, who lives near the epicentre, told AFP. "Everyone is in the street now and the shocks keep coming."
The long, initial quake was felt in much of the Caribbean. It damaged schools as well as homes on Haiti's southwestern peninsula, according to images posted by witnesses.
Jerry Chandler, who heads the country's civil protection agency, told reporters that 29 deaths had been reported, and that search efforts were ongoing.
Haiti has declared a state of emergency in response to the disaster, and a White House official said US President Joe Biden has approved "immediate" aid efforts to begin.
Residents shared images on social media of frantic efforts to pull people from the ruins of caved-in buildings, while screaming bystanders sought safety in the streets outside their homes.
"Houses and their surrounding walls have collapsed. The roof of the cathedral has fallen down," resident Job Joseph told AFP from the hard-hit city of Jeremie on Haiti's far western end.
Heavy damage was reported in the centre of the city, which is composed primarily of single-story residences and buildings.
The damage in the city of Les Cayes appeared to be significant, including the collapse of a multi-story hotel.
"I am mobilising all the resources of my administration in order to come to the aid of victims," Haiti's Prime Minister Ariel Henry wrote on Twitter, as he called on the nation to unite.
Shortly after the quake, the US Geological Survey (USGS) issued a tsunami alert, saying waves of nearly 10ft were possible along the coastline of Haiti, but lifted the warning soon after.
A powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake has struck Haiti, killing at least 227 people and toppling buildings in the disaster-plagued Caribbean nation still recovering from a devastating 2010 quake | Read more: https://t.co/YZNsXsTrg9 pic.twitter.com/wrdtqNpP94— RTÉ News (@rtenews) August 14, 2021
A magnitude-7.0 quake in January 2010 transformed much of Port-au-Prince and nearby cities into dusty ruins, killing more than 200,000 and injuring some 300,000 others.
More than a million and a half Haitians were made homeless, leaving island authorities and the international humanitarian community with a colossal challenge in a country lacking either a land registry or building codes.
The quake destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as administrative buildings and schools, not to mention 60% of Haiti's health-care system.
The rebuilding of the country's main hospital remains incomplete, and nongovernmental organisations have struggled to make up for the state's many deficiencies.
The latest quake comes just over a month after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his home by a team of gunmen, shaking a country already battling poverty, spiralling gang violence and Covid-19.
Police say they have arrested 44 people in connection with the killing, including 12 Haitian police officers, 18 Colombians who were allegedly part of the commando team, and two Americans of Haitian descent.
The head of Moise's security detail is among those detained in connection with the plot allegedly organized by a group of Haitians with foreign ties.
Police have issued wanted-persons notices for several other people, including a judge from Haiti's highest court, a former senator and a businessman.
Moise had been ruling the impoverished and disaster-plagued nation by decree, as gang violence spiked and Covid-19 spread.