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VIA: Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitian President René Préval issued an urgent appeal for his earthquake-shattered nation Wednesday, saying he had been stepping over dead bodies and hearing the cries of those trapped under the rubble of the national Parliament.

Préval, in his first interview since the earthquake, said the country was destroyed and he believed there were thousands of people dead but was reluctant to provide a number.

“We have to do an evaluation,” Préval said, describing the scene as “unimaginable.”

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed,” he said. “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.

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.

Préval 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. 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, Préval 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.

The U.N. confirmed five of its workers had been killed and more than 100 were missing. Among those unaccounted for were the mission chief, Hédi Annabi, and his deputy, the U.N. said Wednesday.

Brazil’s army said at least 11 of its peacekeepers were killed, while Jordan’s official news agency said three of its peacekeepers were killed, the AP reported.

Préval 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 Préval, 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.

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