PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The largest earthquake to hit Haiti in more than 200 years rocked the Caribbean nation Tuesday, collapsing a hospital where people screamed for help and heavily damaging other buildings. U.S. officials reported bodies lying in the streets and an aid official described "total disaster and chaos."
The quake was one of the most powerful ever in the region, measuring a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 and centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million. The quake, which had a shallow depth of just five miles, struck at 4:53 p.m., followed by several strong aftershocks. Tsunami alerts were issued for Cuba, the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean.
Communications were widely disrupted, making it impossible to get a full picture of damage as powerful aftershocks shook a desperately poor country of 9 million where many buildings are flimsy. Electricity was out in some places.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. Embassy personnel in Port-au-Prince were "literally in the dark" after power failed.
"They 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," he said.
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," according to a spokeswoman for the aid group, Sara Fajardo.
Alain Le Roy, the U.N. peacekeeping chief, said in New York that the headquarters of the 9,000-member mission in Haiti sustained "serious damage" and that other U.N. installations were also seriously damaged.
"For the moment, a large number of personnel remain unaccounted for," he said.
The executive director of Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., Emily Smack, said two of the organization's staff are believed to be trapped in their mission house. The staffers were identified as the mission's acting director, Jillian Thorp, and a management consultant, Charles Dietsch.
Thorp, 24, is the daughter-in-law of retired Rear Adm. Frank Thorp, who retired in August as the Navy's chief information officer. Contacted at his home Tuesday night, Frank Thorp said he had been told that Jillian Thorp's leg was badly injured.
With phones down, some of the only communication came from social media such as Twitter. Richard Morse, a well-known musician who manages the famed Olafson Hotel, kept up a stream of dispatches on the aftershocks and damage reports. The news, based mostly on second-hand reports and photos, was disturbing, with people screaming in fear and roads blocked with debris. Belair, a slum even in the best of times, was said to be "a broken mess."
The earthquake could be felt across the border in the Dominican Republic, on the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola. High-rise buildings in the capital, Santo Domingo, shook and sent people streaming down stairways into the streets.
U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Kristin Marano said the temblor was the strongest since 1770 in what is now Haiti. In 1946, a 8.1-magnitude quake struck the Dominican Republic and also shook Haiti, producing a tsunami that killed 1,790 people.
Port-au-Prince sits on a large fault that is part of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. The fault extends from south-central Hispaniola to Jamaica.
Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the United States, told CNN that the quake has crippled his country.
"I spoke to a government official on the island who I reached on his cell phone and he told me: 'Tell the world this is a catastrophe of major proportions.' "
Joseph said from his Washington office that he spoke to President Rene Preval's chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, just after the quake hit. He said Longchamp told him that "buildings were crumbling right and left" near the national palace. Joseph had not been able to get through by phone to Haiti since.
Felix Augustin, Haiti's consul general in New York, said, "Communication is absolutely impossible. I've been trying to call my ministry and I cannot get through."
President Barack Obama ordered U.S. officials to start preparing in case humanitarian assistance was needed.
Former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations' special envoy for Haiti, issued a statement saying his office would do whatever he could to help the nation recover and rebuild.
A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in the Caribbean and South America, said officials are assessing what assistance or aid might be needed.
Information from the Associated Press, the New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.