Speaking from the streets of Port-au-Prince, a visibly shaken Haitian President Rene Preval told reporters Wednesday afternoon "it's too early" to guess at the number of earthquake casualties in his country.
Preval, who gave his first interview to The Miami Herald earlier in the day, thanked the international community for rushing to Haiti's aid at its hour of need.
"Everyone is doing the best to help," he told CNN. "I want to thank all the countries — the U.S., France, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela . . . " Aid supplies have slowly begun to trickle into Haiti.
Asked what he now considered the biggest risk to his country, Preval said: "that the buildings will continue to collapse . . . and for an epidemic."
Preval, who told CNN he is among those left homeless since his private residence and the palace had both been damaged, said he does not fear desperation will lead to street violence. "No, that's not a risk," he said.
As darkness fell Wednesday, Mario Anderson, Haitian national chief of police, grew concerned. He said many officers had been injured and maintaining security in the chaos may become a challenge: "We have many prisoners who are on the streets — it's about 1,000; some have been in prison a long time."
The number of homeless wandering the streets is growing, too, he said. "The situation is bad," he told CNN.
Earlier, Preval told the Herald he had been stepping over bodies and hearing the cries of those trapped under the rubble of the national Parliament.
"We have to do an evaluation," Preval said, describing the scene as "unimaginable."
"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," he told the newspaper. "There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them."
The U.N. said casualties were "vast" but impossible to calculate.
Among the known dead:
— The Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Serge Miot, 61, whose body was found in the rubble of the archbishopric, which collapsed.
— U.N. mission chief, Hedi Annabi, and his deputy, are still missing, the U.N. said Wednesday. Five employees have also been killed.
— Sixteen South American peacekeepers serving with the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
— Three Jordanian peacekeepers were also reported killed.
— Zilda Arns Neumman, a Brazilian missionary who founded and ran a group that assisted children, also died in the earthquake, Brazilian officials said.
The International Red Cross said a third of Haiti's nine million people may need emergency aid and that it would take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge, The Associated Press reported.
Along the border with the Dominican Republic, Haitians were fleeing the devastation.
"I don't have work, I don't have a future here," said Antonio Bacevil, 39, a farmer wearing ragged shorts and muddy boat shoes who was on his way to Santiago. "What you see is what I have. . . . A lot of people are dead."
The U.S. State Department said there are 45,000 American citizens living in Haiti and efforts were being made to locate them. Of the more than 170 personnel at the U.S. Embassy, eight were injured, four of them seriously enough to be evacuated by the Coast Guard, officials said in a briefing.
Preval said he had traveled through several neighborhoods and seen the damage. "All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe," he said.
While official details about the scope of the damage were scarce, eyewitness accounts and media reports painted a nightmarish picture of widespread destruction that was feared to have claimed tens of thousands, if not more.
A hospital collapsed and people were heard screaming for help. The U.N. said Haiti's principal prison had crumbled and inmates had escaped. A Florida-based shipper said the cranes at the Port-au-Prince cargo pier had toppled into the water and that much of the pier was destroyed.
Some 200 guests were reported missing at Haiti's Hotel Montana, a four-star property reportedly destroyed in Tuesday's massive earthquake.
"We know there were 300 people inside the hotel when it collapsed, only around 100 have gotten out, which greatly concerns us," French Secretary of State for Cooperation Alain Joyandet said, according to Agence France-Presse. The 98-year-old hotel is said to be completely destroyed.
Also collapsing was Port-au-Prince's Hotel Christopher, which served as headquarters of the United Nations mission there. About 200 U.N. staffers were inside the 74-room hotel when it collapsed, and only 50 have been accounted for, the UN said.
A third hotel in Port-au-Prince, the Karibe, was also destroyed.
The second story and dome of the ornate Presidential Palace pancaked onto the first floor. The Parliament lay in ruins, trapping Senate President Kely Bastien, Preval said.
The body of the Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found in the rubble of his office, the Associated Press reported.
The World Bank offices in Petionville were also destroyed, but most of the staff were safely accounted for, the organization said.
In Washington Wednesday, President Barack Obama said search-and-rescue teams from Florida, California and Virginia were on their way to Haiti and that USAID would be coordinating a broad-based effort to take food, water and emergency supplies to the nation.
"We have to be there for them in their hour of need," he said.
The military also swung into action early Wednesday, moving a 30-member advance team from Southern Command in Miami by C-130 cargo plane to work with U.S. Embassy personnel and sending a Navy reconnaissance plane from a U.S base in Comalpa, El Salvador, to study the quake damage. The Navy also diverted the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to Haiti. It was expected to be off the coast Thursday.
According to media reports, survivors were digging through the rubble and stacking bodies along the streets of Haiti's capital after the powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the island nation Tuesday afternoon. The earthquake has left the country virtually isolated, with countless crumbled buildings, including the six-story United Nations headquarters.
Preval said Wednesday morning the he had not slept since the earthquake. Others slept in the streets fearing their homes would be toppled by aftershocks.
"This is a catastrophe," the first lady, Elisabeth Preval, said. "I'm stepping over dead bodies. A lot of people are buried under buildings. The general hospital has collapsed. We need support. We need help. We need engineers."
Part of the road to Canape Vert, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, has collapsed, along with houses perched in the mountains of Petionville, where the quake was centered. Petionville is a suburb about 10 miles from downtown Port-au-Prince.
Amid a wave of requests from Florida and other politicians, the Obama administration is temporarily suspending deportations of undocumented Haitian nationals who are in the United States, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday at a news conference in Miami.
With telephone communication to the island nonexistent or spotty, survivors turned to the Internet to search for loved ones and plead for help. "There are people trapped in Caribbean Market in Delmas, pls help," wrote Sandrine Malary on Facebook. "Really there are people trapped in lots of places, so if you are down there please get out there and help save our people."
"I still have no sign from my mother or stepdad," wrote Gregory Kebreau on Facebook. "If anyone has seen or spoken to Nicole Zephirin or Edouard Pierre Louis (Elizabeth's Pierre Louis father) please contact me ASAP!"
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the organization had released $10 million in "emergency funds" to set up immediate operations. He said Assistant Secretary General Eduard Moulet would be dispatched to the region as soon as conditions permit.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said the OAS "will do everything within our means to support the victims of this catastrophic phenomenon." He said Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin was gathering damage information to report to the group's Permanent Council Wednesday to allow member states to contribute to Haiti.
"It is at such times that people, governments and leaders across the hemisphere, as neighbors and friends of the people of Haiti, should show solidarity and support in a real, effective and immediate manner, guided by the country's government, which knows best where the most urgent need lies," Insulza said.
The American Red Cross was poised to move aid from a warehouse in Panama — blankets, kitchen sets and water containers for about 5,000 families — as soon as a flight or means of delivery could be found, Eric Porterfield said in Washington.
Field reports, he said, indicated "lots of damage and lots of aftershocks."
In addition, the American Red Cross had already released $200,000 to its counterpart Haitian Red Cross.
On Wednesday, Haitian Sen. Joseph Lambert also described the scene in Haiti. Standing outside the Parliament building, he said: "Imagine schools, hospitals, government buildings all destroyed."
When asked about the prospect of Haiti rebuilding, Lambert said, "It's our country. We have no other choice. It's a catastrophe, but we have no other choice but to rebuild."
But reaching Haiti is difficult, despite efforts to install an emergency control tower at the main airport.
Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri, spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme, said electrical outage prevented an assessment team from landing in Port-au-Prince Wednesday from the Dominican Republic. They'll have to try again Thursday morning, he said.
For now, Lopez-Chicheri said an emergency triage will be set in Jimani, on the border with Haiti, to help with evacuation efforts and to ferry supplies into Haiti, as needed.
Hundreds of Haitian citizens are also trying to enter Dominican Republic through one of its cities located on the east side, Dajabon — to buy food and supplies and mainly use the telephones.
So far, the director of customs has said only those with legal papers — passports and valid visas — have been allowed to cross. There will be no restrictions with the traffic of machinery tohelp in the hurricane recovery, medicine and other types of supplies headed for Haiti.
For now, the Dominican Republic has ordered a stop of the deportation of illegal Haitians.
Delta Air Lines and American Airlines both suspended service to the island indefinitely. JetBlue Airways Corp. said flights were operating as scheduled to the neighboring Dominican Republic.
There was some traffic at the airport. A U.S. Coast Guard aircraft evacuated some American government workers and a Venezuelan Air Force cargo plane landed with medical supplies and water.
In Miami, anxious Haitians trooped through Sant La, Miami's Haitian Neighborhood Center, desperate for help finding loved ones on the island.
With the downtrodden country's normally unreliable communications systems in ruins, getting word to — or from — Haiti was impossible.
Still, some figured, if anyone could help it would be Gepsie Metellus, Sant La's executive director.
But she wasn't having any better luck than they were. She'd been trying to reach her mother, Ghislaine Pinchinet, 72, all day.
The phone at the family's home in Petionville — a hard-hit Port-au-Prince suburb — offered a disheartening "this mailbox is fill" message.
"I'm worried," said Metellus. The crisis in Haiti — which has suffered a seemingly endless number of crises, natural and manmade — "is in a class all by itself."
On Thursday, members of Miami-Dade's Republican congressional delegation — U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileanaa Ros-Lehtinen will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. to highlight local relief efforts.
Some have already headed for Haiti, hoping to help — and honor those who died in the earthquake.
Monsignor Jean Pierre with the Archdiocese of Miami knew Miot, who is among the identified dead. He described him as a down-to-Earth man of service.
"It is a great loss for Haiti; a great loss for the church," he said, moments before boarding a private jet to Port-au-Prince from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with representatives of the Salvation Army.
When Miot's travels brought him to Miami, he would stay at Pierre's home. He said Miot always reminded him to remain close to the people. "Remember who you are," Pierre recalled the advice.
Pierre had no idea when — or how — he will return to South Florida. "Haiti was poor before," he said, "but this has made things much, much worse."
Still, Pierre had hope that the international community would help Haiti recover.
"Whenever disaster strikes like that," Pierre said, "the human spirit comes alive."
(Miami Herald staff writers Nancy San Martin, Lesley Clark, Diana Moskovitz, Elinor Brecher, Carol Rosenberg, Jim Wyss, Martha Brannigan, Nadege Charles and Herald special correspondents Stewart Stogel and Alba Reyes contributed to this report, which was supplemented by wire services.)
Follow continuing coverage of this story at www.miamiherald.com.