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USAID workers head to Haiti (AP/Photo by Alex Brandon)

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Earthquake | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti

"It felt like 10 seconds combined with three years," is how Jay Cherry, who along with his wife volunteers at an orphanage in Haiti, described the initial shaking that began at 4:52 p.m. (EST) on Tuesday when a 7.3-magnitude earthquake began five miles under water off the coast of the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Messailler, where Cherry lives and works, is a 45-minute drive from Port-au-Prince, the capital and currently the focus of attention for much of the devastating quake damage. There, the country's presidential palace, many government buildings, Notre Dame Cathedral, largest hospital, and largest hotel have all collapsed. Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive said he expects "well over 100,000" casualties, while leading Sen. Youri Latorture told the Associated Press that 500,000 could be dead, based on initial assessments of the destruction.

Among those trapped inside the Parliament building but still alive was the president of the Haitian Senate, Kely Bastien. Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, 63, was found dead in the ruins of his office, AP reported.

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In Messailler, Cherry and his wife were on a walk with a group of orphans when the ground began to shake. "This has got to be the biggest tractor/train/pack of rhinos in the world," he thought. "And then the shaking earth threw me. And kids fell. I actually developed tunnel vision and all my surroundings disappeared." The children cried and screamed as buildings around them crumpled, he added, but no one connected to the orphanage was hurt. The toll, however, is everywhere, he said, "In our little village alone, many people have died and many others have lost their houses."

Barbara Freeman was in Port-au-Prince, where she works for Mission to Haiti, when the quake struck. She reported last night that it damaged all the buildings at Mission to Haiti's campus and left "many injured, many dead" in the area. As aftershocks continued through the night, she said that people continued to pour into the camp: "Many painful injuries of children, compound fractures." With the central hospital in the capital collapsed, Freeman said, "We have no place to transfer seriously injured people," and the mission was quickly running out of pain and other medication.

Freeman, herself, is well acquainted with tragedy in Haiti. In 2006 her son Matthew Baugh, a pastor working in the country with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He died on the way to the hospital, leaving a wife and five children.

President Barack Obama, in a morning speech about the disaster, acknowledged the "complex and challenging" circumstances of perhaps one of the worst recent natural disasters in the Western Hemisphere and in one of the world's poorest countries. With Vice President Joe Biden standing directly behind him, Obama noted that the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti "appears to have suffered its own losses," and appointed USAID administrator Rajiv Shah unified disaster coordinator for government efforts as the United States takes the lead in bringing relief to the island.

"With just a few hundred miles of ocean between us and a long history that binds us together, Haitians are neighbors of the Americas and here at home," the president said. "So we have to be there for them in their hour of need."

In addition to an emergency team of U.S. disaster experts, Washington immediately dispatched search-and-rescue teams from Fairfax County, Va., and Los Angeles. The teams are made up of 72 personnel, six search-and-rescue dogs, and 48 tons of rescue equipment. There has been no estimate so far of how many people may be trapped beneath rubble, but the next 36 hours will be critical to saving lives in such operations.

The U.S. military also is taking a lead role in assistance-moving a 30-member advance team from Southern Command in Miami via a C-130 cargo plane to work with U.S. Embassy personnel, sending a Navy reconnaissance plane from a U.S base in El Salvador to study the quake damage, and diverting the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to Haiti, where it is expected to arrive on Thursday.

Private relief groups also have swung into action. North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse sent its first plane of relief items and equipment Wednesday, and plans to send two more on Thursday. World Vision, with 370 staff members in the country, reported that blocked roads and downed communication were hampering relief efforts but, according to spokeswoman Magalie Boyer, it "will distribute first-aid kits to survivors, along with basic materials such as soap, blankets, clothes, and bottles of water as an initial response."

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