At least 304 people have been killed after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Saturday, just days before a tropical storm is expected to make landfall.

The major quake hit five miles from the town of Petit Trou de Nippes, about 7.5 miles west of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, and was felt across the Caribbean with people fleeing their homes for fear that buildings might collapse.

The 7.2 magnitude quake was stronger and closer to the surface than the magnitude 7.1 quake that damaged much of the capital in 2010 and killed an estimated 300,000 people.

Within hours the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated ‘thousands of fatalities’ and ‘tens of thousands of injuries in poor mountainous communities’. 

Jerry Chandler, Haiti’s director of civil protection, told the Associated Press that the official death toll by 7pm (ET) stood at 304 and that teams will be sent to the area for search and rescue missions. 

The US National Hurricane Center has forecasted that Tropical Storm Grace will reach Haiti late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. 

Prime Minister Ariel Henry said he was mobilizing all available government resources to help victims in the affected areas, and declared a one-month state of emergency for the whole country.

He said he would not ask for international help until the extent of the damages is known.

The USGS issued a tsunami warning, saying waves of up to ten feet were possible along the coastline of Haiti but it soon lifted the warning despite a series of smaller aftershocks that continued to shake the island.

Six aftershocks followed the quake and the USGS registered three of them had at least a 4.5 magnitude. A 5.2-magnitude aftershock hit about 12miles northwest of Cavaillon, Haiti, according to the USGS.

The nearest big town was Les Cayes, with a population of around 126,000, where two residents told Reuters a major hotel and other buildings had collapsed. 

In Les Cayes, locals said water had briefly flooded the coastal town, causing panic amid fear of a tsunami, but then appeared to retreat.

Haitian media outlets reported some people along the coast had already fled to the mountains.

The quake – which had a depth of six miles – was felt 200 miles away in Cuba and Jamaica.  

 ‘Everyone is really afraid. It’s been years since such a big earthquake,’ said Daniel Ross, a resident in the eastern Cuban city of Guantanamo, adding that his home stood firm but the furniture shook.  

Videos posted to social media showed collapsed buildings near the epicenter and people running into the streets.

People in Port-au-Prince felt the tremor and many rushed into the streets in fear, although there did not appear to be damage there.

Port-au-Prince resident Naomi Verneus, 34, told the Associated Press she was jolted awake by the earthquake and that her bed was shaking.

She said: ‘I woke up and didn’t have time to put my shoes on. We lived the 2010 earthquake and all I could do was run.

‘I later remembered my two kids and my mother were still inside. My neighbor went in and told them to get out. We ran to the street.’

Sephora Pierre Louis, another resident of Haiti’s capital, said: ‘In my neighborhood, I heard people screaming. They were flying outside. At least they know to go outside. In 2010, they didn´t know what to do. People are still outside in the street.’ 

The earthquake struck more than a month after President Jovenel Moïse was killed, sending the country into political chaos, and humanitarian aid groups said the earthquake will add to the suffering. 

The country was already battling poverty, spiraling gang violence and Covid-19. 

‘We´re concerned that this earthquake is just one more crisis on top of what the country is already facing – including the worsening political stalemate after the president´s assassination, COVID and food insecurity,’ said Jean-Wickens Merone, spokesman for World Vision Haiti.

‘This country just never finds a break!’ said Haitian entrepreneur Marc Alain Boucicault on Twitter. 

The impoverished country, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes. A 5.9-magnitude earthquake that struck in 2018 that killed more than a dozen people.

The 2010 quake destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as administrative buildings and schools, not to mention 60 per cent of Haiti’s healthcare system.

The rebuilding of the country’s main hospital remained incomplete as of this morning’s earthquake and nongovernmental organizations have struggled to make up for the state’s many deficiencies.