With Port au Prince in ruins and an estimated hundreds of thousands of people lost in the worst earthquake to strike the impoverished nation of Haiti in some 200 years, residents in the neighboring Dominican Republic are keeping their eyes glued to television sets and readying efforts to help.

Speaking from his home in S. Domingo, Rabbi Shimon Pelman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dominican Republic, reported that he was attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of a handful of Jewish families and visiting Israelis in Haiti, which comprises the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Although most lines were down in Port au Prince, Pelman concluded through news reports and contacts with the Israeli government that most of the community appeared to have emerged from the quake unscathed.

A report in The Jerusalem Post, however, quoted the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying that three of its citizens had not yet made contact since the magnitude-7.0 tremblor rippled through the rocky terrain.

“I’m constantly working the phones,” said Pelman, who was teaching a class when the ground started shaking late Tuesday afternoon and ran into the streets for safety. “Right now, we’re looking into the possibility of going over there ourselves.”

News reports indicated that lax building standards borne out of Haiti’s third-world economy contributed to the massive death toll in the quake. A downtown hospital in Port au Prince collapsed, as did the Presidential Palace and the headquarters of the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission. Photographs showed a stunned populace emerging from heaps of rubble, while others laid apparently lifeless beneath crumbled concrete.

In the Dominican Republic, a brief tsunami scared sent people scurrying from coastal areas, but by Wednesday morning, daily life had returned to normal. Pelman said that his children were still scared.

“Everything moved,” he said of the quake. “I had been in Guatemala before, when earthquakes happened constantly, but nothing like this.”

General Mayhem

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake struck 10 miles southwest of the Haitian capital just after 4:53 local time at the relatively shallow depth of 6.2 miles beneath the earth’s surface. The last large earthquake struck the region in 1860.

More than 30 nations quickly dispatched relief teams to Haiti, and a small flotilla of U.S. Coast Guard ships were steaming to the Caribbean on Wednesday. Israel’s Home Front Command likewise sent a disaster team to the region.

“In order to assess the damage on the ground and in order to tailor the aid to the [island’s] needs, a professional team of Home Front Command personnel will leave for Miami,” read a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “This Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic was instructed to travel to Haiti in his car and to report the situation.”

Tequila Minsky, a photographer in Port au Prince, described the aftermath of the quake as “general mayhem.” She told The New York Times that a wall at the front of the Hotel Oloffson fell on top of at least one person, and that a number of nearby buildings had crumbled. People were screaming, she said.

Pelman said that he and his community of 300 Jewish families were praying for all the people of Haiti. He had also arranged to include boxes of kosher food for Israeli rescue workers in the Dominican Republic’s shipment of aid to Port au Prince.

“During the year, everyone donates food to their neighbors in Haiti,” he said. “Now with this crisis, everybody will try to help in any way that they can.”