The number of people killed in Haiti by the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew had risen above 330, local officials said on Thursday, as rescue workers and aid agencies hoped to begin reaching remote areas of the country to assess the damage.
The hurricane, which hit Haiti on Tuesday, brought 145mph winds and torrential rains that destroyed more than 3,200 homes, displaced 15,000 people, ruined plantations and drowned animals. The toll leapt on Thursday night
as receding waters revealed more bodies.
On Thursday night Matthew was headed for Florida, becoming the first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years.
Efforts to access the worst-affected areas – including the Grand’Anse and Sud departments – have been hampered by flooding, the collapse of communications networks and the destruction of a key bridge.
But as the weather clears, Haitian authorities, the UN and national and international non-governmental organisations are starting to get a better idea of the scale of the destruction. The airport in the capital, Port-au-Prince, has reopened for humanitarian flights and two portable satellites are being used to restore communications with cut-off areas.
Officials in Haiti on Thursday raised the death toll to 98. At least four other people elsewhere are known to have died as a result of the hurricane.
Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, the head of the country’s civil protection directorate, warned the death toll was likely to rise as emergency workers reached the stricken regions.
“We do know there’s a lot of damage in the Grand’Anse, and we also know human life has been lost there,” she told the Associated Press.
The port city of Les Cayes in Sud is also feared to have suffered badly in the storm.
“The situation in Les Cayes is catastrophic, the city is flooded, you have trees lying in different places and you can barely move around,” its deputy mayor, Claudette Regis Delerme, told Reuters.
Yvonne Helle, the UN Development Programme’s Haiti director, said while the lack of access made getting precise numbers impossible at this stage, the scale of the damage was clearly enormous. She said the UNDP had received reports that up to 98% of the city of Jérémie, in Grand’Anse department, had been destroyed.
“It has an old historical centre and the old houses have been completely destroyed, ripped to shreds,” she said. “There are aerial pictures of the level destruction and it’s mind-boggling.”
Aid groups have struggled to communicate with people in Grand’Anse since Tuesday morning, though the aid group Catholic Relief Services (CRS) said agricultural fields in Jérémie had been “decimated”.
“Houses in some areas like Jeremie and Dame Marie, which are difficult to access in normal times, are almost entirely destroyed and there are other areas where we don’t know how bad the damage was yet,” said CRS’s senior regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, Robyn Fieser. “Shelter is a huge concern”.
Fieser said there was also an immediate need for food and water in the southern port town of Les Cayes as there are “scores” of people in shelters without access to them.
Enzo di Taranto, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti, said the agency was also waiting for a report on the northwest, where it was impossible for aircraft to fly until Thursday. “There has also been some damage in the northwest, but we have no information whatsoever at this stage,” Taranto said.
The UN has described the hurricane as Haiti’s worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating earthquake six years ago. The rains and flooding have prompted fears of a surge in the cholera epidemic that has killed almost 10,000 people since the disease was accidentally introduced to Haiti by UN peacekeepers.
Helle said the 50-60cm of rain that had fallen in some areas had caused graves to open and flooded pit latrines.
“I think there are going to be serious, serious health concerns that will lead to communicable diseases related to water and sanitation,” she said. “I’m very worried about that and obviously we still have cholera and this will have an effect on our ability to control that.”
Action Aid issued a similar warning. Its country director, Yolette Etienne, said that more than 500,000 men, women and children urgently needed food, clean drinking water and safe shelter.
“Cholera is now a real danger as the already extremely poor sanitation system has been totally overwhelmed by flooding and heavy rainfall meaning the disease could spread quickly,” she said. “The situation is even worse in the shelters which often don’t even have enough toilet and are short of clean drinking water.”
According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 15,263 people displaced by the hurricane have been placed in 152 shelters.
World Vision, which managed to get staff out to remote areas by helicopter on Wednesday, said sanitation, food and looking after children were its main concerns.
“Our teams are seeing a lot of damage, a lot of destruction and a lot of distress,” said Julie Lee, the charity’s spokeswoman in Haiti.
“Our biggest worry is children, who are most vulnerable in these times of disasters. We’re also worried about the crop damage … right now, this hurricane is wiping out the Congo bean crop, the sorghum crop – basically staples of the Haitian diet.”
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and its children’s agency, Unicef, have begun mobilising resources to help. WFP has arranged enough food supplies to feed 300,000 people for a month, and has a further 34 tonnes of food on standby in Miami.
Unicef is preparing life-saving aid for 10,000 people in Haiti, while World Vision is to provide water and sanitation help to 50,000 families.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is also poised to deliver seeds to affected areas to help farmers rebuild their livelihoods.
A deployment of US military personnel and nine helicopters are expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince over the next few days to help the relief effort.
In Aquin, a town outside Les Cayes, people have been braving the mud to see what Matthew has done to their clapboard houses and tiny shops.
Like many Haitians who were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of losing their personal belongings, Cenita Leconte had initially ignored official calls to evacuate as the hurricane hit. Eventually, however, she gave in – and in doing so probably saved her life.
“We’ve lost everything we own,” Leconte, 75, told AP. “But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died.”
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