An American aircraft carrier was the spearhead of a blockade of Haiti's waters yesterday as the US prepared for an exodus of thousands across the sea, fleeing the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince.
The unprecedented air, land and sea operation, labelled Vigilant Sentry, began as a senior US official compared Haiti's destruction to the aftermath of nuclear warfare.
"It is the same as if an atomic bomb had been exploded," said Kenneth Merten, US ambassador to Haiti.
Officials estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed by last week's earthquake.
As well as providing emergency supplies and medical aid, the USS Carl Vinson, along with a ring of other navy and coast guard vessels, will act as a deterrent to Haitians who might be driven to make the 681-mile sea crossing to Miami.
"The goal is to interdict them at sea and repatriate them," said the US Coast Guard Commander Christopher O'Neil.
Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador in Washington, recorded a public information message in creole warning his countrymen not to "rush on boats to leave the country".
He said: "If you think you will reach the US and all the doors will be wide open to you, that's not at all the case.
"They will intercept you on the water and send you back home."
In response to America's closed door, Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal's president, has offered Haitian descendants of African slaves the chance to resettle in "the land of their ancestors" and offered them plots of land.
" Africa should offer Haitians the chance to return home. It is their right," he said.
US homeland security officials said hundreds of immigration detainees had been moved from a south Florida detention centre to clear space for a first wave of Haitians that was expected to reach America's shores.
The plans, first drawn up in 2003, are aimed at avoiding a repeat of previous Haitian refugee influxes in the 1990s and the 'Mariel boatlift' when as many as 125,000 Cubans fled from Mariel Harbour to the US 30 years ago.
In 2004, following political upheaval, more than 3,000 Haitians were stopped as they attempted to reach the US.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross said prices for food and transport had soared since last Tuesday, and incidents of violence and looting were on the rise as the desperation increased.
Dieumetra Sainmerita, manager of Port-au-Prince's main bus terminal, said people were selling whatever they had left to buy tickets out of the city.
"First there were the people who lost their houses. Then there were people who lost relatives. Now the people I see, they are afraid of the thieves trying to steal from them in the night," he said.
Wyclef Jean, a Haitian-born musician now based in America, called on the international community to help with the evacuation of the capital.
"Port-au-Prince is a morgue," he said. "We need to migrate at least two million people." (© Daily Telegraph, London)