Hurricane Matthew ravages Haiti’s southern peninsula, human toll largely unknown

Powerful winds from Hurricane Matthew downs trees in Haiti

Video posted by the Foundation Marie shows strong winds and downed trees in Fort Jacques, Haiti on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.
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Video posted by the Foundation Marie shows strong winds and downed trees in Fort Jacques, Haiti on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.

As Hurricane Matthew continued to lash Haiti on Tuesday, the howling winds and fierce floods washed out roads, toppled trees, damaged scores of homes and killed valuable livestock. With the storm still whipping the island, the human toll was still unknown.

The southern peninsula was hardest hit with 11 coastal communities reporting flooding. Authorities said there were at least two deaths — one a fisherman, another an infirm man killed when his home imploded — while rising waters swallowed two popular beaches, Pointe Sable and Carpentier.

An assistant mayor in the southwest town of Les Cayes was holding a meeting about the storm when winds blew off the roof of the building. More than 9,000 people sought refuge in shelters in the middle of the night in the Nippes and Grand’Anse southern and western regions.

“The situation in the Nippes is truly catastrophic,” a Haitian senator, Nenel Cassy, told a local radio broadcast.

From Port-au-Prince in the west to Les Cayes in the south and into the far western reaches of Haiti in Jeremie, the Category 4 storm was continuing to wreak havoc in this impoverished island nation. The center of the sprawling storm made landfall along the southwestern Tiburon peninsula at about 7 a.m. Tuesday, the first major hurricane to strike Haiti in 50 years.

The damage caused by Matthew was already calling into question the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for Sunday. Elections officials had not yet announced whether they will go forward.

Widespread flooding and dangerous mudslides are expected across the island where more than 61,000 people still live in tents following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000. Even as the storm was still pounding the country, authorities already were agonizing that people would be struck with cholera and be unable to find enough to eat.

The lack of supplies in the country’s 1,350 shelters were so acute that Port-au-Prince Mayor Youry Chevry sent out an urgent appeal late Monday night for more blankets and potable water for people in shelters.

“There was no food,” said Port-au-Prince resident Jesula Bastien, who was among 150 people who spent the night at a shelter. “The situation makes you feel bad. You look around and realize that you’re sleeping on the floor with your kids. But what else can I do? I don’t have any economic means, so I have no other choice but to come here with them.”

Early on Tuesday, few people milled about the streets of Port-au-Prince as the rain fell, though it didn’t stop merchants from the hills of Kenscoff from hawking their harvest at a seaside market. As the winds increased, downed trees blocked traffic in the hills. Presidential candidate Jude Celestin donned work boots to help clear roads while his competitor, Jovenel Moise, told a radio station he had a team ready to lend assistance.

In Leogane, barefoot children played soccer in the streets while other stood on a bridge watching the rising water of a river.

With storm-struck regions isolated and communication spotty on Tuesday afternoon, authorities were still unable to offer a complete picture of the damage.

A bridge connecting the southern peninsula to Haiti’s capital collapsed, isolating the storm-ravaged region from the rest of the country. Another bridge that connects the capital to the north was still standing — but the river’s water was so high that police were forced to shut down traffic.

Even the newly constructed Route 9, which connects the sprawling shantytown of Cite Soleil with a national road leading to the north, had turned into a dirty brown river.

Haiti Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said Tuesday that it will take some time before officials know the full extent of Matthew’s damage.

“The areas that are hardest hit are not accessible at the moment,” he said. “What we do know is a lot, a lot of houses have been damaged. Some lost the rooftops and they have to be replaced. Others were completely destroyed.”

Officials were also bracing for more outbreaks of cholera, a disease that began ravaging Haiti six years ago, killing more than 9,000 and sickening more than 700,000. Earlier this year, Haiti saw a 30 percent increase in cases, a rise that greatly concerned not just Haitian officials but epidemiologists.

“Our biggest concern is cholera,” Joseph said. “The current conditions with the flooding and dirty water mean that the risk for a cholera outbreak is high.”

Jean Claude Fignole, Oxfam’s Influence Program director in Haiti, said water was going to be an immediate concern.

“Our priority is to get clean water and hygiene items to families as fast as possible to avoid a spike in cases of cholera,” Fignole said.

Across the island, the Dominican Republic was largely spared the battering winds but nevertheless was hit by torrential rain.

The country’s newspapers reported that four people — including three children — were killed in mudslides in the capital of Santo Domingo. The government’s emergency operations center reported that the storm had displaced 17,751 people, isolated 31 communities and damaged 204 homes.