Just two days after one of the most powerful storms in a decade slammed into impoverished Haiti’s southern coast, communications are tentatively being re-established on Thursday with the devastated areas.
With phone lines down and bridges wiped out, rescue workers are only now starting to find out what happened when Hurricane Matthew hit as Category 4 storm with 145 mph winds a country ill-prepared to meet its fury.
Only 22 deaths have been reported so far —-10 in Haiti itself — but authorities have still not heard from key regions, including the hard-hit Grande Anse department.
“We do know there’s a lot of damage in the Grand Anse, and we also know human life has been lost there,” Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, the head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, announced.
Across the southern coast, thousands of homes were destroyed, especially the tin roofed shacks common to the region but even the more solid buildings were largely their missing roofs.
In the coastal city of Les Cayes, the streets have turned into canals that residents are forced to wade through.
“We’ve lost everything we own. But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died,” Cenita Leconte, who lives near Les Cayes, told the Associated Press. The 75-year-old only evacuated at the last minute after initially ignoring official calls to leave, like many residents.
Across the hurricane-hit regions many have sought shelter in schools where elections were meant to be held on Sunday.
Faced with the devastation, Haiti’s electoral council on Wednesday postponed an election that has already been delayed several times.
Authorities said the situation would be evaluated over the next week before a new date was announced.
Already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was ill-equipped to face the full might of Matthew. Just six years earlier, 200,000 were killed by an earthquake and tens of thousands still live in tents.
The hilly country, long ago denuded of its trees, is also especially vulnerable to destructive landslides during heavy rains.
John Hasse, national director of the aid group World Vision in Haiti, estimated “thousands of houses destroyed or damaged” in the areas hardest hit. The Haitian government said at least 350,000 people were in need of immediate help around the country, the United Nations said. At the same time, fears rose of possible outbreaks of cholera or other diseases.
Samuel Darguin, a worker with the aid group Haitian American Caucus-Haiti, said relief convoys were prevented from reaching many areas because bridges had been swept away by floodwaters.
Local teams in the isolated regions were in “search-and-rescue mode,” he said, with reports of people missing. That suggested the death toll could rise.
International aid was underway, meanwhile, with a focus on shelter and clean water. The U.S. Navy has sent three ships to Haiti, including an aircraft carrier and a hospital ship. About 300 Marines were aboard the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport vessel.
The United States announced $1.5 million in aid available to the Caribbean countries in Matthew’s wake. Disaster response teams were pre-positioned with some supplies and were assessing the damage and urgent relief needs, said Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and a special coordinator on Haiti.
Beyond food, the aid includes shelter, blankets, and kits for hygiene and water purification to help prevent the spread of cholera, said David Harden, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Haiti’s embassy in Washington described the next few days as “critical to the recovery process” and urged governments, organizations and private individuals to coordinate their aid efforts to avoid overlap and waste.
“It is expected that many will want to engage and take initiatives toward recovery and relief efforts,” Wednesday’s statement said. “The state of Haiti strongly encourages all individuals who are in the process of organizing specific responses and action plans, to work with the local organizations and institutions in Haiti.”
Jean-Michel Vigreux, director in Haiti for the aid group CARE, said estimates on damage have reached as high as $1 billion even before the full extent of the devastation is tallied.
“It is very scary,” he said in a statement.
By Wednesday evening, Matthew was lashing the southern Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph and heavy rain. The storm – now downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane – was heading northwest at 12 mph on a path that would take it close to the east coast of Florida by Thursday evening, the National Hurricane Center reported.
In Cuba, the hurricane destroyed dozens of homes and damaged hundreds of others in Baracoa, a city on the country’s eastern tip. Authorities prepared for the storm by moving people out of threatened coastal areas.
Officials in the Bahamas urged residents to move to higher ground amid the dozens of low-lying islands in the archipelago, and residents of the capital, Nassau, braced for Matthew’s wrath as forecasters predicted a storm path close to the city.