Houses stood without tops, trees without leaves and the people without hope.
What Hurricane Matthew’s Category 4 winds didn’t tear a hole in during its assault on this city, it snapped in two like a pencil, turning a deforested Haiti’s last green space into a desolate disaster zone of fallen trees and destroyed homes.
Once-clear rivers are now streams of mud, and fields and roadways are littered with concrete and personal belongings.
“We’ve lost everything — our animals, our harvest, our documents,” said Andre Moise, 26. “All we have is the clothes you see on our backs, and the water from the coconuts.”
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Once majestic coconut-bearing trees now lay on the ground scattered with sweet coconut milk.
“There is no avocado, no breadfruit,” said Franzy Michel, 28.
Michel said residents needed help. But he and others worried that aid would not reach them. “It’s always promised and up to now, we’ve never seen it.”
Others say the destruction and rising death toll left in Matthew’s wake were so daunting that they doubt the government, which promised to lead the reconstruction effort, could shoulder the burden.
On Thursday, after days of isolation, residents in Haiti’s Grand’ Anse region finally came in contact with the outside world. Aid workers and Haitian government disaster teams arrived to begin an assessment of the damage. Residents said the hurricane arrived with such force between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. Tuesday that it sent many Haitians, like Angelie Leonard, running out into the storm, holding their children and heading for the nearest shelter.
“The rain was salty,” Leonard said. “But the wind, it came with force. It lifted up houses and dropped them.”
Leonard said her home, built of rocks, is gone.
Added Michel: “We’re living a difficult moment.”
Though the official death toll stood at 108 Thursday, it could rise to 283 or even higher, when numbers from mayors in the southern peninsula and other areas are added in. For several days, mayors in the south have been calling in death tolls to local radio stations and have reported the numbers to the regional Office of Civil Protection in Les Cayes.
Francois Anick Joseph, Haiti’s minister of the interior, disputed a report by the Associated Press that quoted an Emmanuel Pierre of the Office of Civil Protection as saying that the death toll was 283 for the southwestern zone.
“We are trying to collect information as to who is Emmanuel Pierre,” Joseph, who is in charge of the Office of Civil Protection, told the Miami Herald. “I do not know of a coordinator for civil protection by that name.”
Government ministers plan to meet Friday to discuss the discrepancy and also are calling on different communities to check the number of confirmed deaths.
As they began to assess the damages, Haitian government officials vowed Thursday to take charge of their country’s reconstruction.
“There are a lot of areas in the country that have been affected, a lot of places that are difficult to access,” said Interim President Jocelerme Privert, during a press conference at the National Palace.
Haitian officials said more than 28,000 houses have been damaged so far — houses not built with concrete blocks suffered the most — but the tally of damages is only in the initial stages. All international assistance will be coordinated through the Haitian government, they said.
On Wednesday, Privert, traveling in a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft, got his first look at the battered coastline along the southern peninsula. He offered sympathies to all the families impacted by the storm.
“What we saw out of the airplane’s window,” he said, “the situation is really catastrophic … it is truly a disaster.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development said a Joint Task Force from U.S. Southern Command was providing logistics, and airlifting relief supplies and humanitarian workers to communities cut off by the storm.
The Haitian government said that it welcomes international assistance, but unlike the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake — when the international community decided where aid would go, without accounting for where it actually went — the Haitian government will take charge of the reconstruction after Matthew.
A ministerial commission was empaneled to coordinate the aid.
“The response that all of our partners want to give, it is us, the government who will tell them where we have needs,” said Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles. “So the different sectors can have control over what’s happening on the ground.”
People will not “just be able to land and say they are here to bring assistance, and then when we do the evaluation we realize that there is nothing to show for it,” he said.
As Haitian government ministers deployed across the country Thursday to check on damages, they were accompanied by United Nations disaster response teams and humanitarian groups.
Speaking at U.N. headquarters in New York, Farhan Haq, a spokesman, said that Haitian officials estimate at least 350,000 people are in immediate need of humanitarian help, although that number may rise as assessments come in from areas with limited communication.
Haq reported that nearly 1,900 homes were flooded. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.
More than 21,000 people remained in shelters, according to Edgar Celestin, a spokesman from the Office of Civil Protection. He said the number of deaths and the amount of damage are expected to rise, especially in hard-hit areas such as the Grand’ Anse. The department on Haiti’s southern peninsula remained mostly cut off from communication, with the worst damage reported from Port Salut West to Dame Marie. Other parts of the country were also seeing major damage.
“Everybody’s house is destroyed, the people can’t eat and have to drink coconut water to sustain them,” said former Sen. Francky Exius, who is from Les Cayes.
Exius, who complained about the slow response of the government, said two bridges are damaged in Port Salut.
“The people are demoralized; they have no hope,” he said.
Jean-Michel Vigreux, CARE Haiti country director, reported that in Jérémie, in the Grand’ Anse, 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed.
“All phone lines and electricity are down. Access is completely cut off, and everyone is running out of food and money. The bank is offline. Everyone is very shaken up,” he reported.
In Arcahaie, the biggest banana-growing region in Haiti, approximately 80 percent of banana crops were destroyed by winds and flooding, reported Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit providing humanitarian relief in the country.
Delafield said in an email that the destroyed banana crops supported about 20,000 families in the region, and that farmers may have difficulty replanting the crops because of saltwater intrusion from flooding.
Cholera has also been a fear in the wake of the storm. Vigreux reported three cases in the Jérémie hospital, a facility with no generator. The World Health Organization reported five new cases of cholera in Randel on Oct. 3.
Since the large cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010, the epidemic has been contained, but outbreaks continue. According to the WHO, Haiti has reported 754,972 cholera cases, including 9,393 deaths, from the beginning of the epidemic in October 2010 through the end of December 2015.
A total of 36,045 cholera cases were reported in 2015, an increase of 30 percent, or 27,753 cases, over the prior year.
Vigreux also reported that Jacmel, capital of the Department South-East, was hit hard, with the number of people in shelters rising from 2,700 to 4,000.
The U.S., Venezuela and Holland have all offered aid to Haiti in the aftermath of the storm. A humanitarian flight from Venezuela flew into Haiti on Wednesday with supplies to help victims.
The World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, along with non-government organizations, all reported scaling up their operations in Haiti for critical shelter, water, sanitation and food assistance.
On Wednesday, Haiti postponed its scheduled rerun of the presidential elections that had been set for Sunday. No new date has been set.
Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.