(ABC News) - The death toll from a devastating earthquake off the coast of Haiti may reach the thousands, aid workers said Wednesday after viewing extensive damage in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
The situation in Haiti is "truly heart wrenching" in a nation that is "no stranger to hardship and suffering," President Obama said at a press conference Wednesday. He promised a "swift and aggressive" effort including rescue workers and humanitarian aid as part of a coordinated international response.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that as many as 3 million people in the impoverished country may have been affected by the quake, according to the Associated Press. The ICRC predicted that it would take 24 to 48 hours for a clear picture to emerge of the scale of the destruction.
According to the UN, the island is the scene of widespread devestation. Collapsed buildings include the national penitentiary, where prisoners have escaped, the National Palace (President Rene Garcia Preval is said to be safe), the Parliament Building, the National Cathedral and at least four other ministry buildings including the finance ministry.
The main airport's control tower is said to have collapsed, hindering rescue efforts. But the airport is said to be operational, and planes carrying aid from the UN are expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince this morning. A UN spokesperson in Geneva says the road from the airport is badly damaged.
The Tuesday afternoon quake had a magnitude of 7.0, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and was centered just 10 miles from Port-au-Prince.
The center was also relatively shallow, less than 10 miles below ground, raising the risk of damage.
Karel Zelenka, a Catholic Relief Services representative in Port-au-Prince, told U.S. colleagues before phone service failed that "there must be thousands of people dead," a spokeswoman for the aid group told The Associated Press.
"He reported that it was just total disaster and chaos, that there were clouds of dust surrounding Port-au-Prince," Sara Fajardo said from the group's offices in Maryland.
State Department Asst. Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley told reporters that embassy staff "reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there's going to be serious loss of life in this."
The United Nations confirmed that the building housing the UN headquarters in Haiti has collapsed. Up to 100 people are believed to be trapped in the rubble,10 have been brought out alive, and five people were confirmed dead at the site. According to a UN spokesman this morning, up to 150 UN personnel were in the building when the quake struck.
Early reports said a hospital in nearby Petionville had collapsed, and a videographer for The Associated Press said he could hear people screaming for help.
"I've been here 34 years as a missionary, I've seen hurricanes, I've gone through sicknesses ?but I could never, ever imagine something like this," said Joel Trimble. "It felt like everything is shifting, nothing is sure underneath you."
A Reuters reporter, quoting workers for a U.S. charity, Food for the Poor, said there were more houses destroyed than standing in Delmas Road, a major thoroughfare in Port-au-Prince. An employee of Food for the Poor said a five-story building had collapsed.
There were other reports of damage, but they could not be immediately confirmed.
Quake Felt in Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic
"I couldn't even stand up, that's how bad it was," said Valerie Moliere, a 15-year-old resident of Port-au-Prince, reached by ABC News. "There's a lot of people in the street everywhere. Some are wounded."
"I just heard that right next to my neighborhood there's this pharmacy and this school that broke down and many people died," she said.
"I don't know how powerful it was. But from what I felt, it was very powerful," said Carole Bastin, another resident reached by ABC News. "And it lasted like ... I don't know maybe, it was quite long because I could not walk, I was trying to leave the house, the building, I could not because everything was shaking around me. All the file cabinets were opening and all the things falling apart."
The earthquake was felt by people in Jamaica; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The original earthquake was quickly followed by two strong aftershocks. The USGS said they had initial magnitudes of 5.9 and 5.5, and more were likely.
"We've seen this with almost all large, shallow earthquakes," said Don Blakeman of the National Earthquake Information Center in a telephone interview with ABC News. "We're going to have an aftershock series, and as time passes, the size of the aftershocks and the frequency will decrease."
Carel Pedre, a Haitian journalist speaking to French digital channel iTele, said there had been several aftershocks. In an emotional interview, he said, "I've not had any contact from my mother and my brother and I wonder about what's going to happen and I'm scared."
"We had an earthquake at 4 o'clock, at 5 o'clock and now it's midnight and there are still aftershocks and we're weak, we don't have the means with which to react, we can't get everyone out of here and we don't have enough food for everyone. There are people out there dying," he said.
Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, said he spoke with President Rene Preval, who told him that buildings were collapsing around him while driving his car.
"The president is fine and [the first lady] is fine," he said. "However, the palace building has been damaged."
The ambassador added that Haiti endured four hurricanes in 2008 and that "for this to come and hit us is like a double whammy."
Boston-based non-profit Partners in Health (PIH), which has offices in Haiti, released a statement saying "The earthquake has destroyed much of the already fragile and overburdened infrastructure in the most densely populated part of the country. A massive and immediate international response is needed to provide food, water, shelter, and medical supplies for tens of thousands of people."
Louise Ivers, PIH clinical director in Haiti, made an urgent appeal for help in an e-mail to 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."
Simon Schorno, spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva told ABC News that they are assisting the Haitian Red Cross with relief efforts. He said that the ICRC already had relief supplies in Haiti for about 2,500 families, and they have begun to distribute those supplies.
He described the situation there as catastrophic, and said that according to ICRC staff on the ground, thousands of people have taken to the streets and tension is running high in some neighborhoods.
White House and State Department Offer Help
The White House issued a statement Tuesday night from President Obama: "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."
U.S. military and humanitarian services said they were ready to offer help, but officials said privately that they had to wait for a formal request from the Haitian government.
"The United States is offering our full assistance to Haiti and to others in the region. We will be providing both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance and our prayers are with the people who have suffered, their families and their loved ones," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she was to make a speech on Asian relations.
"We are standing by to help in any way we can," said Crowley.
The U.S. Agency for International Development asked California Task Force 2, the Los Angeles County Fire Department's search and rescue team, and Virginia Task Force 1, sponsored by the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department, to prepare to deploy to Haiti to help with the recovery effort, should the country request assistance.
The Coast Guard had said that it would send out reconnaissance planes at first light today to assess the damage to the region. They also have four cutters in the area should a request be made for assistance.
"Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken," said Henry Bahn, a visiting official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The sky is just gray with dust."
Bahn said he was walking to his hotel room when the ground began to shake.
"I just held on and bounced across the wall," he said. "I just hear a tremendous amount of noise and shouting and screaming in the distance."
Today French authorities said two aircraft with emergency aid and 120 rescue personnel are due to take off for Haiti from the Martinique Island and from Paris. There are 1,400 French nationals living in Haiti, 1200 of them are based in Port-au-Prince.
In Italy, the Civil Protection department together with the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Italian Red Cross are organizing a first-emergency medical team to leave for Haiti today on a C130 which will be carrying a camp-hospital.
The Pope appealed for aid to Haiti at the end of his weekly public audience, saying "I appeal to the generosity of all, so that our brothers and sisters do not lack real solidarity and support from the international community in their time of need and pain."
The ICRC spokesman Schorno said that they are still trying to work out if any relief flights would be able to land in Port-au-Prince. The main mission, he said, will be to provide medical personnel and supplies as well as tracing specialists, who help with evacuation, identification of the dead and re-establishing family links.
Haitian-Americans Desperate to Reach Loved Ones
In the United States, Rose Leandre was anxiously trying to get through to any family members in her native Haiti on Tuesday evening.
The Spring Valley, N.Y., woman runs the Haitian-American Cultural and Social Organization, which provides immigration, social and educational outreach to the sizable Haitian community --- estimated to be at least 11,000, according to U.S. Census figures -- in Rockland County, one of New York City's northern suburbs.
"Everybody's been calling all over and calling each other, 'have you heard from your family?' And so far, no one's getting through ? so far, within the community, no one has gotten through to anyone in Haiti," Leandre said.
Leandre added that she was desperate to make contact with her mother, who traveled to Haiti, to an area 20 minutes outside Port-au-Prince, just Monday.
"She's disabled, she has severe arthritis, so during the wintertime, it's horrible for her, so she usually goes and spends a month or two in warmer weather," Leandre said.
Leandre said the community would likely meet today to discuss relief efforts.
A tsunami watch was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, but it was canceled after several hours.
"There could have been destructive tsunami waves near the earthquake epicenter but there is not a threat to coastal areas further away," said an advisory from the warning center.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with a population estimated at 9.8 million people, according to the World Bank.
Kirit Radia, Phoebe Natanson, Christophe Schpoliansky, ABC News Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.