Strong aftershock rattles Haiti after deadly quake kills at least 12

Survivors sifting through the rubble of their earthquake-toppled cinderblock homes in northern Haiti on Sunday were rattled by a magnitude 5.2 aftershock that caused panic and threatened to raise the death toll even further from 12.

Magnitude 5.9 tremor hit Saturday night, destroying homes and leading to panic on streets

Shelda Similien, who ran out of her home before it collapsed when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake hit Saturday night, waits to be treated at a local hospital in Gros-Morne, Haiti, on Sunday. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Survivors sifting through the rubble of their earthquake-toppled cinderblock homes in northern Haiti on Sunday were rattled by a magnitude 5.2 aftershock that caused panic and threatened to raise the death toll up from 12.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicentre of the aftershock was located 15.8 kilometres north-northwest of Port-de-Paix, the city hard hit by Saturday night's 5.9 magnitude earthquake.

"It was an aftershock. It was at the same location," said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the USGS. "This is the first significant aftershock."

Residents gather around a collapsed school in Gros-Morne Sunday. It was damaged in the original quake. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

The tremors caused panic on streets where emergency teams were providing relief to victims of Saturday's quake, which toppled cinderblock homes and rickety buildings in several cities.

Haiti's civil protection agency said the initial quake killed at least seven people in the coastal city of Port-de-Paix and another three people in the nearby community of Gros-Morne in Artibonite province.

Among those who died were a 5-year-old boy crushed by his collapsing house and a man killed in a falling auditorium.

'My life is not safe here'

A total of at least 12 people were killed in the earthquake, Interior Minister Fednel Monchery told radio station MAGK9. Authorities said 188 people were injured.

"I feel like my life is not safe here," said nun Maryse Alsaint, director of the San Gabriel National School in Gros-Morne, where several classrooms were severely damaged.

She said that about 500 students would not be able to return to school on Monday.

Cracks are seen in the facade of a home following Saturday's quake. (Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press)

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse urged people to donate blood and asked international aid agencies to co-ordinate with local agencies to avoid duplicated relief efforts. By Sunday evening, the government had not provided an estimate of the damages caused by the tremor.

The USGS said the quake was centred 19 kilometres northwest of Port-de-Paix, which is about 219 kilometres from the capital of Port-au-Prince.

It was felt lightly in the capital, as well as in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and in eastern Cuba, where no damage was reported.

In Haiti, officials have struggled to shore up buildings despite the two major fault lines along Hispaniola, which is the island shared with the Dominican Republic. Deep poverty and government instability have also rendered weaker homes and structures particularly vulnerable in earthquakes.

In the town of Gros-Morne, one bed was covered in rubble, while the exterior walls of some homes were visibly cracked. Others tilted at precarious angles.

Pierre Jacques Baudre, a farmer and father of seven, said he was afraid to return to his home after one wall built with rocks and cement crumbled.

"The house can fall at any time," he said.

Meanwhile, dozens of people could be seen sifting through debris before hauling away rebar to recycle and sell.

The quake was centred about 20 kilometres northwest of Port-de-Paix, which is about 220 kilometres from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. (CBC)

The civil protection agency issued a statement saying that some houses were destroyed in Port-de-Paix, Gros-Morne, Chansolme and Turtle Island. Among the structures damaged was the Saint-Michel church in Plaisance.

Damage was also reported at the police station in Port-de-Paix, and parts of a hospital and an auditorium collapsed in Gros-Morne. Parliamentarian Alcide Audne told The Associated Press that two of the deaths occurred in the auditorium.

Moïse said on Twitter Sunday that civil protection brigades were working to clear debris and help victims. He also said the government had sent water and food.

Impoverished Haiti, where many live in tenuous circumstances, is especially vulnerable to earthquakes. A vastly larger magnitude 7.1 quake damaged much of the capital in 2010 and killed an estimated 300,000 people.