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Hurricane Matthew Leaves Hundreds Dead In Haiti; Homes And Crops Are Devastated

Oct 7, 2016
Originally published on October 7, 2016 8:22 pm

Haiti's interior minister says the death toll in his country from Hurricane Matthew has jumped significantly to more than 280.

Officials and aid workers are finally being able to get in to parts of the country that were slammed by Matthew on Tuesday. It made landfall in Haiti as a Category 4 storm and was the most powerful to hit the Caribbean nation in more than 50 years.

The United Nations in a new assessment of the damage says 1.5 million people were living in a zone hit by the brunt of the storm. The UN says hundreds of thousands of people's homes were damaged or destroyed and up to 80 percent of crops in some areas are a total loss.

In the city of Les Cayes just east of where Matthew made landfall, the streets are littered with power lines, trees have smashed into homes and several inches of silty mud lines the streets.

"This is my first time in life seeing something like this," says 51-year-old Janet Charles. She says while she and her family huddled inside their simple shack, the hurricane ripped the roof off her house. Matthew also drenched all her belongings and even pushed mucky floodwaters into the home she shares with her husband and daughters.

Along with her daughters, Charles is washing every piece of clothing and linen that they had in their house. They pound the clothes in big aluminum wash basins and then hang the garments out to dry on a clothes line next to a washed-out road.

Just up the road, Jean Marc Verdieu is ankle deep in mud clearing the branches of a fallen tree. "I was in the house," Verdieu says when the storm hit. "And I lost everything."

Verdieu says Hurricane Matthew destroyed a small restaurant he's run for 15 years. The corrugated tin building collapsed in the rain, then the mango tree fell on top of it and finally he says people looted his stove and refrigerator.

As Verdieu and hundreds of thousands of other people in this part of Haiti pull their lives back together in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, the main road from Port au Prince to the hard-hit southwest of the country has now reopened.

At least it's reopened by Haitian standards. At a place where a key bridge washed away, people are now barreling across the river in 4 by 4's or carrying their relatives across on their backs. This work-around for the failed bridge was made possible by two things — the level of the river dropping and a bulldozer smoothing out the gravel bottom to make it passable.

In addition to this vital road link between the Southwest and Port au Prince, small aircraft have also now been able to get in to the area.

Margaret Traub, the head of global initiatives for International Medical Corps, flew over some of the worst of the hurricane damage Thursday in a helicopter.

"What we saw was extreme devastation of cropland, farms, gardens, people's homes," she says.

While the death toll from the hurricane has climbed significantly here, it still isn't yet in the thousands as it was during several weaker storms.

Haitian officials urged people in the path of Matthew to evacuate and move to shelters prior to the cyclone making landfall and Traub at IMC says it appears many people did.

"They really tried to warn people in advance to get out of the path of the storm as much as they could and go to places where they could be safe," Traub says. "And I think they really tried to do that and people really heeded their warnings."

Most Haitians survived the initial blow of Matthew but the challenges facing them now are huge.

Hundreds of thousands of people have to repair or completely rebuild their homes. And health officials say they're very concerned that the storm water washing through latrines could cause a major spike in cholera in the coming days.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Let's turn now to the weather. We are tracking Hurricane Matthew, which is the worst storm to hit Florida in more than 10 years. Winds are whipping across the state. Hundreds of thousands of people are without power right now. And we're going to update you on the conditions in Florida and the Southeast Coast throughout the program this morning.

Let's go now to Haiti, where Hurricane Matthew landed Tuesday as a Category 4 storm. The government says the official death toll from the storm has jumped to more than 280. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the hard-hit city of Les Cayes on Haiti's southern coast.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Amid the wreckage in Les Cayes, there is laundry, bedspreads and underwear laid out to dry on the upturned branches of toppled trees. Where there used to be a sheet-metal roof, now there's just some sheets and shirts drying in the sun. All across this city of 70,000 people, women and girls are washing clothes.

JANET CHARLES: (Through interpreter) Everything in the house got, like, into dirty water. And they got all dirty. So that's why, now, I'm trying, like, to clean everything.

BEAUBIEN: Janet Charles says while she and her family huddled inside, the hurricane ripped the roof off her house, dumped rain over all her belongings and then, as if to add insult to injury, pushed mucky floodwaters into the simple shack she shares with her husband and daughters.

CHARLES: (Through interpreter) This is my first time in life seeing something like this.

BEAUBIEN: She says she's never seen such an intense rainstorm. Hurricane Matthew made landfall just west of here with winds of up to 140 mph. Aid officials say more than a million people in the southwestern peninsula of Haiti suffered some damage from Matthew.

Some villages were nearly entirely destroyed. Others lost roofs off the majority of their houses. Fields of bananas and plantains were flattened. Coconut trees had their tufted tops ripped off. Rows of beans sit in what now look like swamps. In Les Cayes, Jean Marc Verdieu is ankle-deep in mud, clearing the branches of a toppled mango tree from his front yard.

JEAN MARC VERDIEU: (Through interpreter) I was in the house. And I lost everything. I used to have a little restaurant right here. And because of the water, people took all my belongings - like, sold them.

BEAUBIEN: Verdieu says Hurricane Matthew destroyed the small restaurant he's run for 15 years. The corrugated tin building collapsed in the rain. Then the mango tree fell on top of it. And finally, he says, people looted his stove and refrigerator.

As Verdieu and hundreds of thousands of other people in this part of Haiti pulled their lives back together in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, the main road from Port au Prince to the hard-hit southwest of the country has now reopened. At least, it's reopened by Haitian standards.

At a place where a key bridge washed away, people are now barreling across the river in 4x4s or carrying their relatives across on their backs. This workaround for the failed bridge was made possible by two things, the level of the river dropping and a bulldozer smoothing out the gravel bottom to make it passable.

Margaret Traub with the International Medical Corps flew over some of the worst of the hurricane damage Thursday in a helicopter.

MARGARET TRAUB: What we saw was extreme devastation of crop land, farms, gardens, people's homes.

BEAUBIEN: Haitian officials urged people in the path of Matthew to evacuate and move to shelters prior to the cyclone making landfall. And Traub at IMC says it appears many people did.

TRAUB: They really tried to warn people in advance to go to places where they could be safe. And I think people heeded their warnings.

BEAUBIEN: Most Haitians survived the initial blow of Matthew. But the challenges facing them now are huge. Hundreds of thousands of people have to repair or completely rebuild their homes. And health officials say they're very concerned that the storm water washing through latrines could cause a major spike in cholera in the coming days.

Jason Beaubien NPR News, Les Cayes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right, that is the damage from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. That storm has now moved to the southeastern United States. It is the worst storm to hit Florida in more than 10 years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.