PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti had only just begun rebuilding from a devastating earthquake six years ago when Hurricane Matthew tore through the small Caribbean nation on Tuesday, killing hundreds in its path and inundating entire villages.
Once again much of the country is a disaster zone, with powerful Matthew shredding homes and engulfing communities in knee-deep water that is taking time to recede.
At least 300 people have died since Matthew made landfall in Haiti on Tuesday as a Category 4 hurricane, according to Paul Altidor, Haitian ambassador to the United States.
“We expect unfortunately that number to rise a little bit as we begin to access communities, regions that were inaccessible because of the roads, because of the bridges that fell due to the hurricane,” Altidor told CNN.
[The Reuters news agency reported that the death toll on Haiti had already soared to 842, with tens of thousands homeless and outbreaks of cholera claiming more lives. ]
Communication is still an issue in Southern Haiti, where winds of 125 mph destroyed homes, flooded villages and cut off the island from the rest of the country.
“The southern peninsula has been devastated,” said US Navy Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle, commander of the Joint Task Force Matthew, after conducting an aerial tour of the destruction.
About 350 military personnel will be on the ground in Haiti by Saturday, Pringle said Friday in a briefing from Port-au-Prince. He’s in the Haitian capital to kick start humanitarian and disaster relief assistance to the country.
Ships from the Netherlands, France and possibly from the United Kingdom will also help, he said.
As the hurricane brushed the Florida coast Friday, US President Barack Obama urged Americans to donate to the American Red Cross and other philanthropic organizations to help Haiti and other affected countries.
“We know that hundreds of people … lost their lives and that they’re going to need help rebuilding,” he said at the White House.
For now, the focus is just reaching victims, because the only bridge linking the capital Port-au-Prince to the worst-affected region in the southwest had completely collapsed, said Ariel Dominique, head of community affairs at the Haitian Embassy in Washington.
She said crews are working on that bridge that spans the Rivière la Digue in Petit-Goâve to make it passable for large-scale aid deliveries.
Conduit roads too are blocked by collapsed palm trees and debris, forcing agencies to consider air dropping of supplies as the skies clear and flying becomes a safer option.
Grand’ Anse, and its capital Jeremie, is one of the worst affected areas, she said.
There was also extensive damage to crops along swaths of southern Haiti.
“We have nothing left to survive on, all the crops have gone, all fruit trees are down, I don’t have a clue how this is going to be fixed,” said Marc Soniel Noel, the deputy mayor of Chantal in the affected region.
“We’re really concerned about food security,” said John Hasse, National Director for World Vision, a US based humanitarian organization. He is currently in Haiti.
“A large portion of Haiti’s food is produced in the south where the damage is most severe. It is a large breadbasket for the country. We expect to see food shortages and/or price spikes throughout the country in the coming weeks and months. This has the potential for creating not only great need but also increased violence and instability.