Rescue workers searched frantically Wednesday for survivors of the worst earthquake to strike Haiti in more than two centuries, while officials warned that the death toll could reach well over 100,000.
Haitians piled bodies in the streets of Port-au-Prince as they dug through the rubble for neighbors, friends or loved ones missing since Tuesday afternoon, when the 7.0-magnitude quake struck near the capital of the Caribbean nation of 9 million.
As the United States prepared to send ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit, and governments and aid groups sent water, biscuits and tons of emergency medical supplies, Baltimore's relief community joined in the huge international relief effort.
Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief and World Relief were dispatching emergency assessment teams to join staff members stationed in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Meanwhile, the hospital ship USNS Comfort, docked in Baltimore, stood ready for deployment.
"A lot of houses destroyed, hospitals, schools. A lot of people in the street dead," Haiti's president, René Préval, told CNN. "I'm still looking to understand the magnitude of the event and how to manage."
In a message to Catholic Relief Services' headquarters in Baltimore, country director Karel Zelenka called the destruction "incredible." He wrote, "People have been screaming and praying all over the place throughout the night. It is a disaster of the century, we should be prepared for thousands and thousands of dead and injured."
The quake badly damaged the National Palace and the Catholic cathedral in Port-au-Prince, and flattened hospitals, schools and the main prison. The archbishop of Port-au-Prince was reportedly found dead in his home.
Estimates of the death toll varied wildly, with some estimates putting the number at well over 100,000. Attempts at estimating the scope of the disaster were hampered by widespread communications outages and impassable roads. Relief agencies, many of which have large operations stationed permanently in Haiti, were still trying to account for their own workers even as they prepared responses to the disaster.
At IMA World Health headquarters in Carroll County, officials were trying to contact three senior staffers, including two Marylanders, who had just concluded a meeting at the landmark Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince when it was destroyed. Officials with the New Windsor-based coalition of faith-based relief groups were unable to reach President Richard L. Santos of Silver Spring, program officer Ann Varghese of Baltimore or Dr. Sarla Chand of New Jersey.
IMA Vice President Douglas Bright said he received information early Wednesday that everyone who was at the meeting had made it out of the hotel safely, but having heard nothing since, he doubted the accuracy of the message. Of the 300 people known to have been at the Montana, a four-star hotel popular among diplomats, aid workers and journalists, only 100 had been accounted for, French officials said.
"We have been trying diligently all through the night and today but have not been able to confirm the status of any of our staff," Bright said. "We are all worried about our colleagues."
IMA, which has had an office in Haiti since 2000, was preparing hundreds of its medicine boxes, each of which contains about 70 pounds of first-aid supplies, vitamins and prescription drugs, including pain relievers and antibiotic creams.
The shipment was typical of the immediate response from Maryland organizations. Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based relief agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was dispatching workers from around the world and committing an initial $5 million for emergency relief.
"That number will go up," spokesman John Rivera said. From warehouses in Haiti, CRS was planning to distribute kitchen supplies, personal items, bedding and mosquito nets for 1,000 families; it planned to import supplies for 500 more families from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
CRS employs a staff of about 300 in Haiti, including 120 in Port-au-Prince. Rivera said the CRS office there survived the earthquake, but a building across the street collapsed. Staff at the Port-au-Prince office remained there Tuesday night, but slept outside for fear of aftershocks.
"This is clearly a classic emergency in which the local capacity to cope is completely exceeded," said Ken Polsky, regional representative of CRS for Latin America. "I think there's a resilience, too, in Haiti, and people will bounce back. They've been through a lot, and we've just got to hope they can keep bouncing back."
World Relief, the humanitarian agency of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Lutheran World Relief were sending workers and supplies. A spokeswoman for U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command said the Comfort could get under way in five days.