Apparel firms with ties to Haiti have rallied with offers of support for local colleagues and suppliers after an earthquake devastated the country's capital city late on Tuesday (12 January).

But they also admit the impact the earthquake has had on the region means it is likely to have lasting economic reverberations - not least for the clothing industry which is the single largest sector in the Haitian economy.

"It could be some time before we are able to make full assessment about the status of Haiti's important apparel industry, which will be vital to rebuilding Haiti after this devastating event," said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA).

Before the disaster, Haiti was the seventeenth largest supplier by volume of apparel products sold in the United States, with exports valued at $412m in 2008. 

In January to October 2009, the country's market share of apparel imports into the US jumped 22% to $424m, helped by its close proximity to its main customer and its low-cost production.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has also benefited from the HOPE II Act (Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Engagement) of 2008, which provides Haitian apparel exports duty-free access to the US market.

And a campaign launched in October earmarked $2m to help kick-start the country's garment sector with a five-fold hike in exports planned.

Tuesday's disaster is a severe setback for Haiti's 25 garment factories and their more than 24,000 workers.

For now, the focus is on "reaching out to members who are active in Haiti," Burke says.

"At this time, our members are focusing on the safety of their workers and supporting rescue and relief operations to help the people of Haiti."

The American Apparel Producers' Network has also been tracking the whereabouts of its members through its AAPN Tactical Network, asking them "to pull out all stops to get information from Haiti."

And Canada, Montreal-based T-shirt and clothing maker Gildan Activewear says it is still gathering information "in order to fully evaluate the impact of the Haiti earthquake on the operations and employees of its sub-contractors in the country."

The firm, which uses Haitian workers to sew some of its fabrics, says initial indications are that two out of its three contractor facilities are intact, while the third and smallest contractor facility has suffered substantial damage.

At T-shirt and underwear maker Hanesbrands, which uses Haiti for "a small percentage of its overall production," the most immediate problem is to the local infrastructure near the country's capital near Port-au-Prince, including ports, roads, bridges and power systems.

It says three of its four sewing contractors in the country were hit by the disaster, but that it is switching production to the Dominican Republic and Central America to avoid disruption to its supply chain.