In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s destructive pass through Haiti, which left at least 10 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and a death toll certain to climb, elections officials on Wednesday postponed Sunday’s rerun presidential and legislative elections for the second time this year.
The delay was expected by many Haitians after Tuesday’s battering from Matthew, a monster Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 145 mph that made landfall along the country’s southern coast bringing 15 to 20 inches of rain and triggering fears of a cholera outbreak. But elections observers, and some candidates, criticized the Haitian government for failing to set a new date for the election.
The country’s Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP, announced the postponement on the day that Haitian National Police and a United Nations logistics team were scheduled to begin moving ballots and other sensitive materials to voting centers.
As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Hurricane Matthew was about 70 miles south of Long Island, Bahamas, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph and moving northwest at 12 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center’s latest advisory.
CEP President Leopold Berlanger said those affected by Matthew had to come first. “We stand in solidarity with them and we will not leave them behind in the electoral process,” he said. “The country is obligated to make the victims a priority.”
In January, Haiti postponed a scheduled second round of elections amid protests after opposition front-runner Jude Célestin declared he would not campaign until government officials addressed fraud allegations from the contested first round on Oct. 25.
Célestin called the postponement “a wise decision” on Wednesday: “Getting assistance to the population is more important than elections right now. It’s difficult to go ask people to go vote, given what we’re dealing with right now. But elections are important. I hope that the CEP announces a new date as soon as possible so that regardless of the conditions, there is a new president who takes office in Haiti on Feb. 7.”
The U.S. State Department said the decision is Haiti’s alone, but that the Obama administration hopes the rerun elections are held soon.
“Our interest is that they do have elections, whether they’re Sunday or some other point in the not-too-distant future,” said Kenneth Merten, Haiti special coordinator and Western Hemisphere affairs deputy assistant secretary. “That they have elections soon, and that they have elections that are fair, transparent and credible.”
A mechanical engineer, Célestin was in Petit-Goâve with a construction team Wednesday evaluating a collapsed bridge that made it impossible to move ballots to the southern parts of Haiti. The road was impassable, cutting off the capital from the hard-hit southern peninsula.
Across Port-au-Prince, in the fishing village of Luly on Haiti’s Arcadian Coast, some residents also welcomed the decision.
“These are difficult times,” said Gerald Dumay, one of dozens of fishermen who lost their livelihoods when Matthew tore apart their canoes. “I want to vote and I was ready to vote, but elections won’t work right now.”
Presidential candidate Jovenel Moïse, who finished first in last year’s controversial Oct. 25 vote, said he was uncomfortable with the CEP’s decision without a new election date.
“The government announced the resumption of school activities on Oct. 10. It means that elections can take place on Oct. 16,” said Moïse spokesman Renald Luberice. “Before announcing the postponement of the elections, the CEP should have been forced to reschedule.”
Luberice said that interim President Jocelerme Privert “never wanted these elections. He wants to take the opportunity to postpone them indefinitely.”
Opposition candidate Moise Jean-Charles, who finished third, also called on Berlanger to provide “a fixed date,” for the rerun election.
Despite the yet-to-be-decided election date, campaigning will officially end at midnight Friday, candidates learned Wednesday.
The Organization of American States, which sent observers to Haiti in September to observe the election, also met Wednesday to address Matthew’s toll in Haiti and how to coordinate relief efforts among member countries.
Gerardo de Icaza, director of the OAS’ department of electoral cooperation and observation, said the hemispheric body agrees with the postponement.
“We lament the human loss and that people have lost their homes, properties and have been displaced,” he said.
Juan Raul Ferreira, head of the OAS’ Electoral Observation Mission, said the 125 observers will be ready to support the vote “when the relevant authorities decide they are ready to hold elections.”
Berlanger, the CEP president, said a new date could come by Oct. 12. The elections body, he said, needs to evaluate the damage and assess its ability to transport voting materials to the hardest hit areas.
In response to the delay, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is running for reelection, issued a statement calling the postponement “justifiable” but urging a rapid return to the polls for Haitians.
“It cannot be used as an excuse to perpetually postpone it and further undermine the democratic process there,” Rubio said. “We need effective U.S. leadership on the humanitarian response for all the obvious human reasons, but also so this election can be rescheduled as soon as possible and the Haitian people can choose leaders that can address the many challenges facing their country.”
$1.5M Total U.S. Agency for International Development aid to Haiti for Hurricane Matthew
Haiti’s most immediate challenge will be recovering from the aftermath of Matthew.
Privert, the interim president, boarded a U.S. Coast Guard plane Wednesday afternoon to conduct an aerial survey of the southern peninsula. The country’s two international airports reopened Wednesday morning.
As the storm headed for the Bahamas, the extent of damage in Haiti began to come into focus for international relief workers. Especially hard hit were communities along Haiti’s southern peninsula.
At least 10 people were confirmed dead and 10 injured due to Matthew, the Office of Civil Protection said Wednesday morning, but the toll was likely to climb.
Spokesman Edgar Célestin said officials were completing an assessment of the storm’s impact, especially in the Grand’ Anse Department, whose residents remained isolated without cellphone service. Matthew knocked out communications throughout the southern coast of Haiti and forced the temporary closure of the international airports in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien in the north.
At least 1,855 homes were flooded, affecting about 2,700 families, officials said, as the number of people evacuating to shelters rose from 9,000 to 15,623.
“Most of the area has been hit pretty hard,” said R. David Harden, an assistant administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking with reporters on teleconference Wednesday. “Communications are down in most of the affected areas.”
A team led by U.S. Southern Command began deploying to Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. The advance team planned to create a staging area at Port-au-Prince’s airport in preparation for the arrival of C-130 cargo planes carrying additional personnel and equipment.
The first humanitarian flight arrived in Haiti Wednesday afternoon, with plans to deploy the American volunteers to Dame Marie in the Grand’ Anse Department Thursday.
In addition, a team of 100 U.S. military personnel and nine helicopters is positioned on Grand Cayman Island, where they had arrived on Tuesday but remained on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the weather to improve before traveling to Haiti, where they will provide support for disaster relief missions requested by the Haitian government.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conveyed his solidarity Wednesday with the people and governments of Haiti, Cuba and other nations in the Caribbean affected by Hurricane Matthew.
“In Haiti, the government reports that a number of people have lost their lives and estimates that at least 350,000 people need immediate assistance,” he said in a statement.
U.S. AID dispatched more than two dozen disaster response workers to Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas before Tuesday, and positioned food, hygiene materials and water purification systems in strategic locations.
Harden said the agency’s humanitarian assistance for regional hurricane relief in the region totals $1.5 million worth of aid, including $1 million to provide food vouchers and rations, cash transfers and meals at evacuation shelters. About $500,000 will go to international efforts in Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas to provide logistics support and distribute relief supplies, such as drinking water, hygiene kits and household goods.
“I would say that represents a robust engagement, given where we are at this time,” Harden said. “I mean our assessments haven’t even come back, and what we’re doing now is simply trying to save lives.”
What we’re doing now is simply trying to save lives.
R. David Harden, U.S. Agency for International Development
Harden said Matthew dumped 15 to 25 inches of rain in Haiti, and that officials were worried about preventing an outbreak of cholera, which bedeviled the country after the earthquake in January 2010.
“A lot of our assistance is going to focus on water and sanitation, which is probably the most effective means to inhibit the spread of cholera,” Harden said.
At the White House, President Barack Obama urged Americans to keep in mind that one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti, which is already suffering from a range of previous disasters, has been hit “really hard by this storm.”
“We anticipate that they’re going to need substantial help,” Obama said.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.