MEXICO CITY - A mighty earthquake rocked the tiny, impoverished island nation of Haiti Tuesday, collapsing a hospital, the presidential palace and other buildings, and triggering what one diplomat called a "catastrophe."

As night fell on the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and other towns, reports of extensive destruction were trickling out. Tsunami alerts were issued for Cuba, the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean.

The quake, one of the most powerful ever in the region - measuring a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 and centered about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million - had a shallow depth of just 5 miles. It struck at 4:53 p.m., followed by several strong aftershocks. All of that augured vast damage and overwhelming casualties.

>>PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake rocks Haiti

At least two Americans, one of them a young aid worker related to a retired senior U.S. naval officer, are believed to be among those trapped in wreckage.

The executive director of Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., Emily Smack, said she believed two of the organization's staff are trapped in their mission house, which partially collapsed.

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Smack identified the staffers as the mission's acting director, Jillian Thorp, and a management consultant, Charles Dietsch. Thorp is the daughter-in-law of retired Rear Adm. Frank Thorp, who had been the Navy's chief information officer.

Electricity was out last night throughout the darkened capital, phone lines were down and the airport was shut. Screams for help came from felled buildings, and chaos reigned.

"I can hear very distressed people . . . a lot of distress, people wailing, trying to find loved ones trapped under the rubble," Ian Rodgers, with Save the Children in Port-au-Prince, told CNN by telephone.

In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged to help the crippled country.
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Major earthquake hits Haiti

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in remarks before a speech in Hawaii, said the United States was assessing the situation and "is offering our full assistance to Haiti and to others in the region."

"We will be providing both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance," Clinton said. "And our prayers are with the people who have suffered, their families and their loved ones."

A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in the Caribbean and South America, said officials are assessing what assistance or aid might be needed.

The Associated Press said its reporters saw a hospital collapse in the wealthy suburb of Petionville that overlooks the capital.

A spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services said the group's representative in Haiti, Karel Zelenka, described "total disaster and chaos" before the telephone line went dead. Zelenka told colleagues that the Haitian capital was covered in dust.

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"He estimates there must be thousands of people dead," the spokeswoman, Sara Fajardo, said in an interview from the group's office in Maryland.

"Within a minute of the quake . . . soil, dust and smoke rose up over the city, a blanket that completely covered the city and obscured it for about 12 minutes until the atmospheric conditions dissipated the dust," Mike Godfrey, who works with USAID, told CNN from Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Haiti has been battered in recent years by storms, military coups and gang violence. With AP

>>PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake rocks Haiti


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HOW TO HELP

Those interested in helping immediately can text "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will be charged to your cell phone bill and given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts.

Wyclef Jean, a rapper and hip hop artist from Haiti, urged people to text "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 toward earthquake relief. Yéle Haiti is a grassroots movement inspiring change in Haiti through programs in education, sports, the arts and environment, according to its Web site.

Or you can go online to organizations such as the Red Cross and MercyCorps to make a contribution to the disaster relief efforts.

The State Department Operations Center has set up the following number for Americans seeking information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747.

Other Web sites accepting donations include:

Haitian Health Foundation
Hope for Haiti
UNICEF
International Medical Corps
Beyond Borders
AmeriCares