WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with the people of Haiti, where a powerful earthquake hit on Tuesday, and the United States stands ready to help the impoverished Caribbean nation.
U.S. officials in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince reported “significant damage” there.
White House officials said Obama also had asked aides to make sure U.S. personnel at the embassy were safe. Fewer than 20 U.S. military personnel are in Haiti, largely working with the U.S. Embassy there. Officials said Obama told them to start preparing in case humanitarian assistance was needed.
The State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Southern Command have started to co-ordinate.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said from Honolulu that the United States was gathering information about the quake and its impact, and the government was offering full civilian and military assistance to Haiti.
Clinton spoke with the deputy chief of U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, David Lindwall, before making a speech in Honolulu.
“We have been in touch with the embassy,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in Washington. “They report significant damage in town, but the embassy is unaffected.The embassy is working to get in touch with Haitian government as well as trying to … account for Americans.”
Haitian phone lines are down, and cellphone coverage is understandably unreliable,” he said.
The U.S. ambassador to Haiti was in the country, but was at his residence, which is in Petionville, and the phone lines were out, Duguid said. “The embassy is in touch with the ambassador via radio.”
The State Department was setting up a hot line telephone number for people to call, but the number was not yet working.
“Our embassy is also trying to make contact with the Haitian government,” Duguid said. “There are emergency meetings going on right now in Washington to identify assets that can be moved quickly into the area.U.S. search and rescue teams have been put on alert, and we are trying to assess the status of the airport.As President Obama has said, we will assist in any way we can.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said, “This is the worst possible time for a natural disaster in Haiti, a country which is still recovering from the devastating storms of just over a year ago.”
Engel urged the administration “to do everything possible to help” the Haitian people recover.
Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, said his office and the rest of the U.N. system were monitoring the situation. He pledged relief, rebuilding and recovery assistance to Haiti.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Robert Burns in Honolulu contributed to this report.