Reconstruction experts have said it could take more than five years to get Haiti back on its feet -- but the long-term prospects may be good.
The aid community has already begun plotting a new start for the country that has been mired in poverty and plagued by misrule, corruption and debt, turning it into the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
Haiti's geographical location in America's backyard could mean it receives unprecedented outside support for a country hit by a major natural disaster.
One international aid expert, who did not want to be named, even suggested there might be a silver lining to the latest horrors as Haiti would have the chance to rebuild from almost scratch.
Cameron Sinclair, a Briton who runs Architecture for Humanity, has been working with the Yele Haiti charity of rapper Wyclef Jean, and said it would be a long process.
"It's going to take at least five years to get Haiti back on its feet and people into proper homes," he said. "The country's housing stock was already appalling.
"The initial emergency relief operation may last about six weeks and then we move in at the second phase of recovery and rebuilding.
"Our priority is building transitional and permanent housing, but also developing local community structures around them."
Aid agencies have learnt from the successes and failures of the recovery effort after the last international catastrophe on this scale.
It was on St Stephen's Day 2004 that a devastating tsunami pummelled Asian coastal communities after a huge undersea earthquake.
The Banda Aceh region on the Indonesian island of Sumatra bore the brunt of the ferocious waters, suffering at least 160,000 of the 250,000 fatalities. Perhaps half a million people were left homeless.
There, as in Haiti, US naval forces played a key role in the immediate relief operation as an unprecedented influx of foreign aid flooded in.
Initial progress was mixed, but after five years 130,000 new homes have been built, along with schools, highways and other infrastructure projects such as an impressive port.
Mistakes were also made -- so many new boats were supplied that the waters around the coast have suffered from overfishing.
By some accounts, resources were also wasted and panic was unleashed by an overstatement of the risk of diseases such as cholera. Some 160,000 locals were targeted in a cholera immunisation campaign, although few cases of the disease ever occurred.
Mr Sinclair emphasised the need to identify local partners and avoid the dangers of overdependence on foreign aid. "It may seem surprising to outsiders, but Haitians are a resilient people and Haitian pride is an important factor.
"You can't just have the Americans moving in to run the show -- that will reek of colonialism and end with resentment and schisms.
"You have to work with the local community and give them a voice. It's not just about rebuilding homes, it's rebuilding a sense of community." (© Daily Telegraph, London)