The number of people killed by the devastating Hurricane Matthew grew to 330, Haitian officials said on Thursday, as aid agencies and rescue workers look towards remote areas of the country to assess the damage done by the tropical storm.
Hurricane Matthew hit the Caribbean country on Tuesday and brought 145mph winds and torrential rains that decimated more than 3,200 homes, displaced 15,000 people, ruined crops, and killed livestock. The death toll rose on Thursday as receding waters revealed a greater amount of dead bodies.
During this time, Matthew was making its way towards Florida, becoming the first major hurricane to possibly make a direct hit on the US mainland in more than 10 years.
The rescue effort was hampered by several hindrances, including severe flooding, the collapse of communication networks, and the destruction of a bridge. However, as the weather starts to clear, Haitian authorities, alongside the UN and non-governmental organizations, are starting to get a better idea of the scale of the destruction.
Haiti’s primary airport in Port-au-Prince has reopened for humanitarian operations, while two portable satellites are being used to temporarily reestablish communication with isolated areas.
Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, the head of the country’s civil protection directorate, issued a caveat stating the death toll was likely to rise as rescue workers make their way further into stricken areas.
“We do know there’s a lot of damage in the Grand’Anse, and we also know human life has been lost there”, she said.
The UN’s Development Program Haiti Director Yvonne Helle said that while the lack of access has made specific figures difficult to assess, it is clear that the scale of devastation is enormous. She said that according to the UNDP, up to 98% of the city of Jérémie in Grand’Anse department had been completely destroyed.
“It has an old historical center and the old houses have been completely destroyed, ripped to shreds”, she said. “There are aerial pictures of the level destruction and it’s mind-boggling”.
The UN has described the hurricane as the Haiti’s worst humanitarian crisis since the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake that rocked the country. Torrential rain and flooding have raised fears of a surge in cholera deaths, which has killed a total of 10,000 people since the disease was first accidentally introduced by UN peacekeepers.
Helle said the rain that had fallen in some areas had caused several graves to open and flooded outdoor latrines, raising concerns about the critical state of sanitation, particularly in remote areas.
“I think there are going to be serious, serious health concerns that will lead to communicable diseases related to water and sanitation”, she warned. “I’m very worried about that and obviously we still have cholera and this will have an effect on our ability to control that”.
While many Haitians were told by authorities to evacuate their homes, there was little that could be done to save their properties and personal belongings – thus prompting their reluctance to do so. Cenita Leconte, who like other Haitians were initially concerned about losing their belongings, was one of the many who refused at first, but eventually gave in – possibly saving her life.
“We’ve lost everything we own”, Leconte, 75, told Associated Press. “But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died”.