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VIA: CNN.com

The powerful Haitian earthquake has destroyed most of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haitian authorities said Wednesday.

A top envoy called it a “major catastrophe.”

Haiti’s first lady, Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour, reported that “most of Port-au-Prince is destroyed” and that many government buildings had collapsed, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, told CNN Wednesday morning. Delatour said President René Préval was all right, Joseph reported.

Rescue crews were racing Wednesday morning to fully assess the damage in the teeming hillside city, where toppled buildings killed and injured an untold number of people and trapped others in the rubble.

The U.S. State Department has been told to expect “serious loss of life,” spokesman P.J. Crowley said, though precise casualty estimates were not immediately available.

About 3 million people — one-third of Haiti’s population — were affected by the quake, the Red Cross estimated.

President Obama pledged Wednesday that the U.S. government would lead “a swift, coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives” in Haiti after the earthquake.

“For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible,” he said.

The president noted that “military overflights have assessed the damage” from the earthquake and that civilian disaster assistance team were beginning to arrive in Haiti.

Obama said U.S. relief efforts are currently focused on a quick accounting of U.S. Embassy personnel and their families in Port-au-Prince, as well as other American citizens living and working in Haiti. He urged Americans trying to locate family members in Haiti to telephone the State Department at 888-407-4747.

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The main airport in Haiti appears to be operable. U.S. Embassy staff at the airport said the tower and the lights are working, Crowley said Wednesday.

The quake ripped apart buildings, shearing huge slabs of concrete off structures in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Many buildings that remained standing were left open to the elements, pictures from the scene showed.

First rescuers on the scene were often local people trying to help dig people out of the rubble by hand or to comfort injured survivors.

Pictures from Haiti showed concrete buildings that had fallen onto themselves, broken and flattened. People in the streets were dusty from the concrete and in some cases bloody from their injuries.

“One woman, I could only see her head and the rest of her body was trapped under a block wall,” said Jonathan de la Durantaye, who drove through Port-au-Prince after the quake. “I think she was dead. She had blood coming out of her eyes and nose and ears.”

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. It could be felt strongly in eastern Cuba, more than 200 miles away.

Many of the concrete-block homes in Port-au-Prince are built “helter-skelter, all over the place,” Joseph said. The earthquake damaged buildings as grand as the National Palace, pancaking scores of structures, trapping people inside those buildings, and knocking down phone and power lines.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Timothy M. Carney told CNN that Port-au-Prince was particularly at risk because it grew rapidly from a population of about 250,000 in the mid-1950s to more than 2 million today, all with little oversight.

More than 100 employees of the United Nations’ mission in Haiti were unaccounted for Wednesday after the earthquake, U.N. officials said.

Among the missing were the chief of the U.N. mission in Haiti and the agency’s deputy special representative, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York.

The destruction included the U.N. peacekeeper compound, a five-story building where about 250 people work every day.

Three Jordanian peacekeepers died and 21 were injured, according to Jordan’s state-run Petra News Agency. An Argentine member of the peacekeeping team also is confirmed dead, the Argentine military said

About 3,000 members of the U.N. peacekeeping force are based in Port-au-Prince and its outskirts, while another 6,000 are in the rest of the country.

None of the three aid centers run by Doctors without Borders in Haiti is operable following the earthquake, the group said Wednesday.

The group is focusing on re-establishing surgical capacity so it can deal with the crushed limbs and head wounds it is seeing, said Paul McPhun, an emergency management expert for Doctors without Borders.

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