The U.S. on Tuesday was dispatching disaster rescue teams to earthquake-stricken Haiti, where a U.S. official said a "serious loss of life" was expected.
President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with the people of Haiti and that the U.S. stood ready to help the impoverished Caribbean nation.
While telephone lines were down in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and cell phone communication was spotty, U.S. officials there reported "significant damage."
"There were some people (from the embassy) in the city when the earthquake first happened," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there's going to be serious loss of life in this."
Frank Thorp, a retired rear admiral who ran the Navy's public information office until recently, said he believed his daughter-in-law was trapped in the rubble. Thorp said he was told late Tuesday that his son's wife, Jillian Thorp, 24, had used her cell phone to call from help from a Haitian Ministries mission house run by Norwich Missions based in Norwich, Conn.
White House officials said Obama had asked aides to make sure U.S. personnel at the embassy were safe. There are fewer than 20 U.S. military personnel in Haiti, largely working with the 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 coordinate. USAID said it was sending a disaster assistance response team and had activated its partners, the Fairfax County (Va.) Urban Search and Rescue Team and the Los Angeles County Search and Rescue Team. USAID disaster experts also would assist.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said from Honolulu that the U.S. was gathering information about the quake and its impact, and that the U.S. was offering full assistance — civilian and military — 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 cell phone 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 phones lines were out, Duguid said. "The embassy is in touch with ambassador via radio."
The State Department set up a toll-free number to call for information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747. The department said some callers may receive a recording because of heavy volume of calls.
"Our embassy is also trying to make contact with the Haitian government," Duguid said late Tuesday. "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."
"Our people in Haiti are literally in the dark," Crowley said. "And now the people at the embassy actually — they've got generators there, so our embassy has to be able to function," but with limited ability to assess what has happened outside and how to begin sending assistance.
The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance will be assembling a team to send to Haiti, Crowley said, including search and rescue experts from the U.S.
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, Anne Flaherty and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Robert Burns in Honolulu contributed to this report.
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