Ten thousand people are feared dead after a two-hour earthquake ripped through the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.
Initial reports suggest whole communities have been wiped out as an estimated 80% of buildings have been flattened with little hope of finding survivors.
The earthquake which reached 6.5 on the Richter Scale has sparked huge fires causing fears those who survived the initial attack may not escape the flames. Nicaragua was struck at 1240 local time when all electricity and water supplies to the country were cut. Telegraph and telephone links have also been severed.
Aid workers are trying to clear the area to prevent the spread of diseases such as typhoid so that experts can search for survivors and get food and water to the hundreds now homeless.
Among the ruins and rubble are two of the city’s three main hospitals. Relief workers at the scene are trying to bury the dead in makeshift graves to curb a growing stench.
An evacuation order has been placed on the city and authorities are expected to close off the area while a clean-up operation takes place. The city is still affected by occasional tremors, and cracks in the road are hampering emergency relief efforts.
Officials have said they need medical aid and anaesthetic more than anything else at present. The United States, Mexico and neighbouring countries to Nicaragua are preparing to send aid, food and medicine.
The capital city is above a geological fault which has made it susceptible to tremors and earthquakes. Managua has twice been destroyed in earthquakes in 76 years, leading to speculation the country may have to move its capital.
Parts of the country have already suffered the worst drought of the century this year. And the partial failure of the cotton crop, which with coffee is the staple of the Nicaraguan economy, has led to unemployment and poverty.
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More than 25 countries responded with aid worth several millions of pounds.
But the magnitude of the devastation meant it was not distributed well and began being stockpiled despite the desperate situation facing thousands of people.
Most of the original foreign aid money never reached the victims of the earthquake and the death toll is estimated to have been between 5,000 and 10,000.
The devastation caused by the earthquake was blamed on badly built high-rise buildings which collapsed.
Central Managua was never rebuilt, instead a sprawl of markets and businesses developed where people had set up home.
Small parks and squares have been built to try to draw people back to the city centre and plans for new infrastructure include a limit of three-storey-high buildings.