Hurricane Matthew leaves the farmers and fishermen of Haiti struggling to survive

Marie-Lucienne Duvert looked out from under the eaves of her mud and wood-frame house, as her husband tried to repair the damaged roof above her head, and tried to come to grips with the expanse of devastation staring back.

“There isn’t even a tree left to catch a breeze,” said Duvert, 63, surveying the once-majestic coconut palm trees that now stood like inverted wet mops and the toppled plantains, avocados and dried-breadfruits littering the ground. “This was our livelihood. Now it’s all gone, destroyed.”

Haitian and international authorities are still trying to understand the full economic toll of Hurricane Matthew’s powerful Category 4 winds and flood waters in five of this country’s 10 geographical departments. But the 2.1 million people affected by the storm don’t need a balance sheet to understand their loss.

“All of the resources they had were in their goats, their cows, their farms,” said former Sen. Francky Exius, who until last year represented the South Department and survived Matthew by standing in the rain in a corner of his now-storm-damaged home. “The only thing they had was their identity. Their pride was their homes, and now they don’t even have that to live in.”

All along Haiti’s southern coast, the losses are as visible as the denuded palms, mangled fruit trees and ripped-off tin roofs. Goats and cows — investments that pay for medical care and funerals — have disappeared along with fishing boats, nets and more than 90 percent of the crops, according to a preliminary assessment by the World Food Program.

“It wasn’t much, but we managed,” Duvert said about the earnings she made from the coconut and breadfruit plantation that sustained her family. “Now, we’re left to the mercy of God.”

Emmanuel Valcourt, a farmer who was worshiping at a nearby Church of God, was even more blunt.

“I’m not afraid to say it, but in another three, four months, Haitians are going to die of starvation,” he said. “I really don’t see how we’re going to rebuild. We don’t have the financial means. We don’t have a job that would have allowed us to have savings. The few animals that we had are all dead.”

The outlook is even more dire 75 miles in the direction of the fertile Grand’ Anse Department where the United Nations aid agency estimates that all of the crops — 100 percent — were washed away just before harvest time.

“Everything’s lost,” said a numb Marcorel Nicola, who grew plantains, coconuts, yams and other crops and sold them to local markets around Jérémie, the Grand’ Anse’s devastated urban core. “I didn’t even get a chance to start gathering them.”

But beyond the crop and two cows, Nicola suffered an even more devastating loss: his 8-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. They were swept away in the middle of the night by the raging river, unleashed by Matthew’s 145 mph winds, that burst onto the family’s property stealing all that Nicola and his wife held dear.

In the week since the storm’s passing, Nicola is still trying to make sense of the tragedy, speaking in a slow, grief-stricken tone. Unable to remain near the river that wiped away his prior existence, Nicola ended up in a muddy, debris-strewn field along the shoulder of the blacktop road leading into Jérémie, a spot where a new, storm-stricken “tent city” is slowly emerging.

Taking a tree branch, he pushed it down into a dirt hole with all of his might. Then with the help of Jean Lamar, a friend who also lost a child to the same river — an 18-year-old son — Nicola connected the two upright poles by laying a third across it. The two men then hammered the branches together using rusted nails and a palm-sized rock as a hammer.

“It’s going to get tough,” said Port-au-Prince economist Kesner Pharel, noting that while the government had predicted at least a 2.2 percent growth in the economy this year, he’s now expecting negative growth, which will only deepen the poverty levels. “Food is more than 50 percent of a family’s budget and prices are going to go up and people’s purchasing power is going to go down.”

Agriculture, Pharel said, represents 20 percent of Haiti’s Gross Domestic Product after commerce, restaurants and hotels, which account for 28 percent.

“That means for every 100 gourdes created in the economy, 20 are created in the agriculture sector,” said Pharel, referring to the depreciating domestic currency, which is about 66 gourdes to the dollar.

Also damaged by the storm: roads, bridges and one of the best farming irrigation systems in the country, from Cavaillon to Les Anglais.

“It was a lot of money that was lost,” said Pharel who believes that the government is “overwhelmed” by the magnitude of the crisis. He doesn’t yet see how it plans to make good on its promise to help people reconstruct the country.

“People need to rebuild their homes, and with no agriculture, where are they going to get the money for that?” Pharel said. 

Former Agriculture Minister Jonas Gué, a member of interim President Jocelerme Privert’s cabinet, said the southern peninsula provided between 30 and 40 percent of the food sold in the country’s capital. While some farmers had already harvested their crops, corn and banana farmers had not.

Adding to the impending food crisis: the struggling fishing industry, which provides protein to many in their diet, lost canoes, nets and other equipment.

“This is why one of the things we are stressing,” Gué said, “is that before the humanitarian response ends, it must include the ability for the farmers and fishermen to get back on their feet.”

Matthew is only the latest in a series of tragedies to strike this Caribbean nation in recent years. The most devastating, of course, was the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that took more than 300,000 lives and reduced the capital city of Port-au-Prince to rubble but spared most of the rest of the country.

“The earthquake lasted only a few seconds, and it gave you a high death toll,” Exius said. “The hurricane lasted longer, killed less people and destroyed everything those who are most vulnerable had that was valuable. It ravaged the provinces in a way the earthquake didn’t.”

But throughout the coast, it isn’t the quake that those in the largely spared rural areas bring up as they talk about Matthew’s devastation. It’s another hurricane — Hazel.

Nicola was only a few months old — and Duvert only 2 — in 1954 when Hurricane Hazel churned through the Caribbean, turning north toward Haiti and Cuba, ripping off roofs and decimating southern Haiti’s agricultural areas. Matthew traveled a similar path.

Like Hazel, which killed hundreds and set a booming Haiti back years, Matthew’s official death toll remains in the hundreds — at 473 as of Tuesday. Its impact, however, is expected to be far worse.

Haiti, which only has a $1.9 billion annual budget, was struggling under the weight of a souring economy and repeated political crises — the latest of which left the nation without an elected president — when Matthew struck.

Now with the country’s long-term food supply depleted, many are bracing themselves for not just deeper poverty but possible social and political tensions similar to 2008 when rising food prices led to riots and the eventual dismissal of the prime minister.

Yvonne Helle, the head of the United Nations Food Development Program for Haiti, said the growing emergency isn’t lost on them.

“The situation is very, very dire,” she said. “These are a resilient people, but these are people who were already living at the deepest levels of poverty.”

While some crops can quickly be replanted, Helle said a lot of what was lost “are not things that can easily be replaced.” Still, United Nations agencies are pushing to have farmers plant fast-growing crops quickly to help offset the damage.

“We know that in six months, we are going to see serious, serious food shortages if we don’t start replanting right away,” Helle said.

Meanwhile, relief supplies continue to make it into the country. On Wednesday, Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina sent a convoy of perishable and non-perishable food items as part of the neighboring country’s assistance. The 480-vehicle convoy included mobile kitchens, ambulances, medicine and equipment to help the country clear roads and restore electricity in areas where it was knocked out.

Medina, who visited Haiti on Sunday, even sent plantains from his nation’s vast plantations.  

When Matthew hit, Haiti had been emerging from the worst food crisis in 15 years, a crisis brought on by a prolonged drought that triggered food insecurity risks after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and 2008’s four hurricanes in 30 days.

This year was supposed to be the best crop for farmers in three years. Now, that’s lost.  

“People will not be able to feed their families, but also they will not be able to provide for their families,” Helle said. “It’s not just only the crops that have been lost but also the damage to the trees. A damaged mango tree will not produce mangoes in six months. You now have to re-grow.”

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