After Haiti Quake, Thousands Seek Scarce Care

A day after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake killed an estimated 1,300 people in western Haiti, the country, already suffering from a dire lack of doctors, struggled to help the many wounded.


A wounded woman in Les Cayes, Haiti, being carried to a plane to be airlifted to Port-au-Prince on Sunday. Credit Valerie Baeriswyl for The New York Times


LES CAYES, Haiti — With broken bones and open wounds, the injured jammed into damaged hospitals or headed to the airport, hoping for mercy flights out. A handful of doctors toiled all night in makeshift triage wards. A retired senator used his seven-seat propeller plane to ferry the most urgent patients to emergency care in the capital.

A day after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake killed at least 1,300 people and injured thousands in western Haiti, the main airport of the city of Les Cayes was overwhelmed Sunday with people trying to evacuate their loved ones to Port-au-Prince, the capital, about 80 miles to the east.

There wasn’t much choice. With just a few dozen doctors available in a region that is home to one million people, the quake aftermath was turning increasingly dire.

“I’m the only surgeon over there,” said Dr. Edward Destine, an orthopedic surgeon, waving toward a temporary operating room of corrugated tin set up near the airport in Les Cayes. “I would like to operate on 10 people today, but I just don’t have the supplies,” he said, listing an urgent need for intravenous drips and even the most basic antibiotics.

The earthquake was the latest calamity to convulse Haiti, which is still living with the aftereffects of a 2010 quake that killed an estimated quarter-million people. Saturday’s quake came about five weeks after the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, leaving a leadership vacuum in a country already grappling with severe poverty and rampant gang violence.


The authorities in Haiti were scrambling to coordinate their response to the quake, mindful of the confusion that followed the one in 2010, when delays in distributing aid to hundreds of thousands of people worsened the death toll.

Buildings in Camp-Perrin, Haiti, that were damaged in Saturday’s earthquake. Credit Valerie Baeriswyl for The New York Times


Prime Minister Ariel Henry promised Sunday at a news conference “to give a more appropriate response than the one we gave in 2010,” with a single operation center in Port-au-Prince to coordinate the aid efforts.


Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of the relief agency Partners in Health, which oversees several hospitals in Haiti, said the country’s ability to respond to an earthquake — with new emergency medical services and training programs — had greatly improved in the intervening years.


“The things we had at our disposal in 2010 versus now are night and day,” Dr. Farmer said.

But he acknowledged that Haiti still faced what he called “old problems” like bad roads, poor transportation and political volatility, fueled by gang violence, which could make managing the disaster all the more difficult.

Among the organizations extending help over the weekend were the United States Agency for International Development, which sent a search-and-rescue team, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which said it had deployed helicopters to provide humanitarian aid. The Pan American Health Organization sent experts to coordinate medical support, and UNICEF was distributing medical supplies to hospitals in the south and helping with water and sanitation.


The quake — more powerful than the one 11 years ago — triggered widespread landslides, with rocks and other debris blocking many roads, making it hard to reach the injured and needy. The road from Les Cayes, on the coast, to the Marceline district about 16 miles away in mountains overlooking the city, was cracked down the center, with boulders and tree branches blocking it.


Families in the area were sleeping in the open, their homes severely damaged or completely destroyed. Others were too nervous about the aftershocks ripping through the region to feel comfortable taking shelter under a roof.


Boulders along the road from Les Cayes to Camp-Perrin on Sunday. Credit Valerie Baeriswyl for The New York Times


In Marceline on Sunday, Honore Faiyther had just discovered his aunt’s body among the remaining pews of St. Agnes church when an aftershock jolted the town, rattling corrugated tin roofs that had collapsed and were strewn across the ground.