Hurricane Matthew’s toll in Haiti reached at least 271 people Friday, with 143 confirmed dead in the Grand’ Anse region to the south, the director of the Office of Civil Protection told the Miami Herald.
“It’s almost 300, and it will surely rise,” Marie-Alta Jean-Baptiste said.
As President Barack Obama on Friday called for Americans to remember Haiti — “hit and battered by a lot of natural disasters,” he said — the number of storm-related deaths in the Caribbean country continued to fluctuate.
Jean-Baptiste said an earlier report of 283 deaths reported by The Associated Press was incorrect. She said extra workers from the Office of Civil Protection flew into Jérémie, a badly damaged city on the southern peninsula, on Thursday to help compile information about deaths and damages.
She said many people died in the mountains while trying to escape the storm’s sea surge, others after their homes and roofs collapsed on them because of Matthew’s strong winds.
And the death toll will undoubtedly go up, especially in the hard-hit Grand’ Anse area. Even as the Office of Civil Protection confirmed the 143 deaths there, Fresnel Kedner, a representative of the department, told the radio station Vision 2000 on Friday that the area has registered 232 deaths so far.
“The situation is apocalyptic,” Kedner said, noting that the deaths included 85 in a town called Moron and 31 in the main city of Jérémie. He said the region endured more than 12 hours of Matthew’s Category 4 winds and torrential rain when the storm made landfall on Tuesday. Ninety-five schools there were damaged, he said.
There are other communities, like Pestel, that authorities had not yet been able to reach, Kedner said. But the mayor of Pestel, Evil Lavilette painted a dire picture when he spoke to Radio Caraibes, saying there had been 22 deaths in the seaside community.
“Pestel is on the road to disappearing,” the mayor said. “All of the public buildings we identified to shelter the people are destroyed, 80 percent of the government schools seriously damaged, 20 percent are destroyed.”
“This has surpassed the competence of the mayors,” Lavilette added.
Since Tuesday, local mayors and other representatives have been calling radio stations in the capital to verbally report damages and deaths. Their numbers far exceed those of the Ministry of Interior — which runs the Office of Civil Protection — with the count going as high as 800 based on the mayors’ tally.
“The government should trust the numbers being given by the mayors. They are the first point of contact with the communities affected,” said Jude Edouard Pierre, mayor of Carrefour in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area and president of the National Federation of Haitian Mayors.
Pierre said he believes the 283 figure for deaths in the southwestern zone, even though officials in Port-au-Prince say the number contradicts information they’ve gathered so far.
“Today, no one can say how many people died in the Grand’ Anse,” Pierre said.
This is not the first time that Haiti has had issues with death tolls. It was — and remains — an issue from the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. The government puts the official figure at 316,000, while others put the number at 200,000 or even less.
Municipalities in Haiti — known as communes — do not keep identification records.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz on Friday said the U.S., while still responding to Matthew’s east coast path, is also helping in Haiti.
“While we are laser focused on the response within the United States, the damage caused by the storm in the Caribbean has been devastating, and our prayers are with the families and loved ones particularly who died in the storm,” he said.
He said U.S. Agency for International Development has sent disaster teams to Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas, and they’re working with local authorities to coordinate relief efforts. There are 250 U.S. Department of Defense workers on the ground in Haiti, distributing food and water and assisting in transportation, and nine U.S. military planes.
USAID has made available $5 million assistance and the Defense Department is providing another $11 million in “overseas disaster relief,” Schultz said.
Last month, the Obama administration said because conditions have improved in Haiti, it was returning to its policy of deporting undocumented Haitians. On Friday, more than 50 Democratic and Republican House lawmakers from 20 states, citing the hurricane and pending humanitarian crisis, called on him to reverse that decision.
Obama, in his remarks on Haiti on Friday, also asked Americans to help by contributing to the Red Cross and other philanthropic organizations.
“We know that hundreds of people have lost their lives and that there’s been severe property damage and they’re going to need help rebuilding,” he said.