OTTAWA - Canada is rushing to ease the chaos in earthquake-battered Haiti, sending helicopters, ships and a disaster response team to rescue those buried in the rubble and help thousands of homeless wandering without food, water or medical help.
But the sheer magnitude of the devastation from Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude quake - which wiped out much of the impoverished country's communications infrastructure - left the exact nature and extent of Canada's role vague until a clearer picture emerges of what's needed most.
The lack of communications also frustrated efforts to determine the fate of up to 6,000 Canadians living in Haiti, including two missing RCMP officers and former Liberal MP Serge Marcil.
Three Canadians have been confirmed dead, including an Ontario nurse and a couple from Montreal.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said search and rescue is the first priority for Canadian military and aid teams.
"Obviously, the first priority is to try and get those people who may be still alive and can be saved," he said. "As the days progress, we'll be working on humanitarian and other responses."
Canada is committing an immediate $5 million in humanitarian assistance and promises speedy deployment of aid. A C-130 military transport plane arrived in Haiti on Wednesday with a reconnaissance team that will assess what military personnel and equipment is needed.
A huge C-17 military transport plane is scheduled to fly to Haiti on Thursday carrying a utility helicopter and tons of equipment and personnel. The transport planes can be used to evacuate Canadians if necessary, said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
Naval officials said two ships, HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax, are being prepared to leave Thursday for Haiti. They will carry everything from a helicopter to chainsaws, generators and first-aid kits.
"There's lots of good life-saving going on down there right now," said Capt. Art McDonald. "By the time we get down there we need to be looking at sustaining humanity and helping these people, particularly the one's at risk - the elderly, the young.
"Our key focus initially is on providing the light engineering and medical support, especially light engineering, to enable aid to be delivered."
More than 100,000 people of Haitian descent, including Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, live in Canada, most in Quebec. Many of them spent an agonizing day trying repeatedly, but fruitlessly, to reach relatives.
"Like me, Haitian communities across Canada are heartbroken and overwhelmed by the magnitude of this catastrophe," a distraught Jean told a news conference, choking back tears.
"The images and news reports are unbearable to watch. So much distress, suffering and loss."
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced that up to $5 million in humanitarian assistance will be made immediately available to non-governmental relief organizations working in Haiti. She suggested more aid could flow following the assessment of the reconnaissance team.
She also said Canada has stockpiles of mosquito nets, basic household goods, tents and sanitation packages that are ready to go as soon as it's clear what's needed.
Oda said it's important to take time to co-ordinate relief efforts - a lesson learned from the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, when badly co-ordinated international aid resulted in a surplus of some supplies and equipment and severe shortages of others.
MacKay said the government has decided to deploy Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a military rapid response force. But the make-up of that team won't be decided until it's clear what kind of help Haiti needs most.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Harper had been trying to reach government officials in Haiti but "it is extremely difficult, communications are down."
Harper spoke Thursday with U.S. President Barack Obama about the catastrophe. He said they discussed co-ordinating military and humanitarian aid: "Our governments are co-operating closely."
While the number of quake casualties was unknown, the International Red Cross estimated that as many as three million Haitians - one third of the country's population - may need emergency aid. Thousands of building have been flattened, including the parliament building, hospitals, a prison and the UN headquarters.
Hedi Annabi, the UN secretary general's special envoy, was among the more than 100 missing UN workers.
Cannon said 24 staff at the Canadian mission in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince were accounted for, as were five military personnel.
Canada's embassy building was evacuated as a precaution. But Foreign Affairs said dozens of Canadians in the country are being given assistance and more than 100 took refuge on the embassy's grounds, where they were being provided with basic necessities.
There are 707 Canadians registered with the embassy out of the 6,000 Canadians believed to be living in the country.
Georges Anglade, a Montreal university professor for 30 years, and his wife, Mireille, were visiting friends in Port-au-Prince and were killed when the house they were in collapsed, their daughter Pascal Anglade told The Canadian Press late Wednesday.
Colleagues and friends of an Ontario nurse who also died hailed her as a dedicated professional who knew and cared for the people in her small community. Yvonne Martin of Elmira, Ont., was one of seven people who had arrived in Port-au-Prince about 90 minutes before the quake hit. The group was planning to provide medical care and support in several of the island nation's northern communities.
One Canadian woman trapped in a collapsed building sent a text message to the Foreign Affairs department's emergency operations centre, seeking help and was later rescued. No other details were available.
The operations centre had received more than 750 calls by mid-day Wednesday from people in Haiti and worried relatives in Canada.
Most of Haiti's nine million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards.
The country is the largest recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas and the second largest in the world.
Foreign Affairs is urging Canadians worried about friends and family in Haiti to call its emergency operations centre in Ottawa at 1-800-387-3124 for assistance.
For updates, they can also check the Foreign Affairs website www.international.gc.ca/humanitarian-humanitaire/earthquake-seisme-h aiti.aspx.
Canadians in Haiti are urged to make their way to the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince.