The destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew has affected 350,000 Haitians and left the country facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating earthquake six years ago, the UN has said.
Ten thousand Haitians are living in shelters, hospitals are under severe strain and water is in short supply, according to Mourad Wahba, the UN secretary general’s deputy special representative for Haiti.
A situation report from the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), citing information from the Haitian government’s directorate of civil protection, said 350,000 men, women and children in Haiti were in need of assistance.
Ocha said flooding had been reported in 11 towns on Haiti’s southern coast. The International Organisation for Migration issued alerts over the plight of 55,000 internally displaced people still living in temporary shelters in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, following the 2010 quake.
At least 16 deaths have been blamed on the hurricane during its week-long march across the Caribbean, 10 of them in Haiti. Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, said on Wednesday that Haiti’s confirmed death toll had doubled from five to 10.
Haiti’s government said Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections – due to be held on Sunday – would be postponed for the second time this year while the government assessed the extent of the hurricane’s damage. “Getting assistance to the population is more important than elections right now,” said Provisional Electoral Council president, Leopold Berlanger.
Hours after Matthew swept in on Tuesday, bringing 145mph winds, Haitian government leaders said they had not been able to assess its impact. With a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the rural south-western peninsula tip of Haiti remains isolated.
“What we know is that many, many houses have been damaged. Some lost rooftops and they’ll have to be replaced while others were totally destroyed,” said the country’s interior minister, François Anick Joseph.
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, while Unicef is preparing life-saving aid for 10,000 people in Haiti.
Marc Vincent, Unicef’s representative in Haiti, said Matthew was the worst storm Haiti had seen in decades. Carlos Veloso, the WFP’s Haiti director, said efforts to gauge the scale of the emergency were being complicated by the lack of communications and the fact that the airport in Port-au-Prince was still closed.
The storm ripped away a bridge in the flooded town of Petit Goave, preventing any road travel to the hard-hit south-west. Local radio reported water shoulder high in parts of the southern port city of Les Cayes.
With access to the hardest-hit areas difficult, there are growing fears that the country’s cholera epidemic could spread further. The disease, unwittingly introduced to Haiti by UN peacekeepers after the earthquake, has killed 9,000 people and there have been 27,000 suspected cases of cholera already this year, a third of them in children.
Frank Manfredi, senior director of resilience at child’s rights group Plan International, said cholera, a waterborne disease, is a “major concern” for aid groups. “People are wading through water that can be from ankle to waist deep, and in some places impassable,” Manfredi said.
Manfredi said that on the ground, there is also concern about how the wind and rain have destroyed crops. People are expecting landslides as well, which could further damage agriculture.
Because the impact of waterborne disease remains unknown, and large swaths of land are cut off from communication, Manfredi expects the death toll to rise. “Unfortunately with areas cut off, it would not be surprising if those figures rose,” he said.
Prospery Raymond, country manager for the international charity Christian Aid, said the departments of Sud and Grand’Anse had been the worst affected by the storm, along with parts of the Ouest department. He said the wind and rain had torn roofs from houses, swept away plantations, ripped trees from the earth and drowned livestock.
“The road to Grand’Anse is not open because one of the main bridges has collapsed,” he said. “Communication is not working. We don’t have much information on the number of people who’ve died but the main thing is shelter and housing: a lot of people have lost their roofs or had their houses destroyed. The roof of the big church in Les Cayes, which is one of the symbols of the city, blew away.”
He said that unless water and sanitation supplies were brought to areas where the water was now “sticky with mud”, the risk of cholera would only increase “and there will be another emergency to deal with when it comes to all sorts of water-borne diseases”.
Raymond said the Haitian government and many local NGOS and civil society groups wanted to make sure they played a central role in the relief effort. One of the enduring criticisms of the international response to the 2010 earthquake is that Haitians were sidelined as foreign groups decided how best to respond and rebuild.
“People are waiting for support from the government and I think the government would like to co-ordinate most of the international help,” said Raymond. He added that Christian Aid and its partners would “push international donors to work more closely with the Haitian government and to provide support directly to it in order to move the response”.
Veloso said the UN and other international agencies and NGOs were working closely with Haiti’s directorate of civil protection to ensure the mistakes of the past were not repeated.
“There have been constant meetings with [the directorate] and several organisations have placed people full time in the department to boost its capacity and to create a better communication line with the UN agencies and NGOs,” he said.
Muddy rivers and tributaries continued to rise as water flowed down hillsides and mountains, threatening further flash floods and mudslides even as Matthew tracked away from the country.
Milriste Nelson, a 65-year-old farmer in the town of Leogane, said neighbours fled when the wind tore away the corrugated metal roof on their home. His own small yard was strewn with the fruit he depends on for his livelihood.
“All the banana trees, all the mangos, everything is gone,” said Nelson. “This country is going to fall deeper into misery.”
Haitian authorities had tried to evacuate people from the most vulnerable areas before the storm, but many were reluctant to leave their homes for fear of losing their belongings. Some sought shelter only after the worst was already upon them.
Jean-Michel Vigreux, Haiti director of the humanitarian agency CARE International, said that while communication with the southern part of the country is “very difficult,” they had heard of “destroyed houses, streets and bridges, dead livestock, destroyed livelihoods”.
CARE dispatched a response for about 50,000 people but noted that the country is still recovering from a string of natural disasters including the earthquake, two cyclones, a tropical storm and two draughts.
“The population is very strained,” Vigreux wrote. “Strengthening people’s resilience and boosting the reconstruction are key.”
Rainfall totals were predicted to reach 15-25ins (38-64cms) in Haiti, with up to 40ins in isolated places.
The hurricane rolled across the sparsely populated tip of Cuba overnight, destroying dozens of homes in the island easternmost city, Baracoa, and leaving hundreds of others damaged. More than 377,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, according to the UN.
In Baracoa on Wednesday, rubble filled the water-logged streets as people scrambled over collapsed buildings and through gutted homes to survey the destruction.
There were no immediate reports of deaths , though waves picked up a large shipping container and dropped it three blocks inland from the shore and dozens of homes were destroyed in Cuba’s easternmost city, Baracoa.
“I’ve never seen something like this in my life,” Elva Perez, a 55-year-old homemaker, whose home was destroyed in the storm, told the AP. “For more than 200 years, here in this house, nothing like this has ever happened.”
By Wednesday morning Matthew was passing east of the Bahamian island of Inagua, moving over open water on a path expected to take it very near the Bahamas capital, Nassau, and then Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.
Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, announced plans to evacuate 250,000 people, not counting tourists, from the state’s vulnerable coastline, while Florida began mandatory evacuations in Broward County. Public schools in Savannah, Georgia, were closed.
Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, urged other coastal residents potentially in harm’s way to leave as well, adding that people living in mobile and manufactured homes were being ordered to leave. “If you’re able to go early, leave now,” Scott said during a morning news conference.
The National Hurricane Centre said winds had slightly decreased overnight and Matthew had dropped from a category 4 to a category 3 storm. But forecasters said Matthew could restrengthen slightly and would remain a powerful and dangerous storm over coming days.