Death toll rising in storm-ravaged areas of southern Haiti

Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Jérémie, southern Haiti. (Credit: Vincent DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

Aid officials say up to 90 percent of southern Haiti has been destroyed since Hurricane Matthew struck the impoverished nation last week, with the death count rising to nearly 900 people.

The death toll is likely to rise as many bodies are likely still buried in the rubble or in the hardest-hit areas that cannot yet be accessed by land. The Category 4 storm passed directly over Haiti’s southern coast, flooding and flattening homes with winds of up to 145 mph.

Vincent DeGennaro, president of Innovating Health International in Haiti, witnessed the damage from a helicopter while providing aid to the region. In an email to Humanosphere, DeGennaro said the southern town of Port Salut suffered “massive destruction” of buildings but thankfully saw very few injuries.

We asked around town and it seems that there were 20 to 30 deaths, but it was hard to gauge,” he said. “The hospital had lots of lacerations and soft tissue injuries but only two orthopedic patients, no sick children, no women with complicated labor.”

But DeGennaro’s team was unable to make medical assessments in Port-à-Piment, Chardonnières and Les Anglais, which appeared to have been “wiped away entirely” by the storm’s high winds and rain. The main road connecting the southern peninsula to the capital, Port-au-Prince, has been destroyed.

Port a Piment. (Credit: Vince DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

Port-à-Piment after Hurricane Matthew. (Credit: Vince DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

“From 2,000 feet we saw no cars, motos or other signs of life,” said DeGennaro. “One or two fires and some laundry laid out on the beach. I pray that they were evacuated and simply haven’t returned.”

Oxfam teams have also been providing aid throughout these areas, distributing hygiene kits and water purification tablets to prevent waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea or cholera, which health officials say has already killed 13 people and infected 62 others across three southern towns. Oxfam is also handing out construction material and will repair or install water tanks.

“What is most urgent now is to provide safe water to prevent disease, as well as food and essential supplies,” said Jean Claude Fignole, program director of Oxfam in Haiti, in a statement. “In the longer term we fear a jump in cholera, and malnutrition due to crop loss. Mobilization of the international community in support of the Haitian people is urgently needed.”

Hurricane Matthew survivors in Port Salut, Haiti. (Credit: Vincent DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

Survivors in Port Salut, Haiti. (Credit: Vincent DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

The United Nations program UNICEF is also raising alarms on the threat of waterborne diseases. Even before the hurricane, only one in three people in Haiti had access to proper latrines and fewer than three in five had access to safe water, according to UNICEF. In rural areas, these rates go down to one in four for sanitation and one in two for water.

After the destruction of the storm, waterborne diseases are now of even greater concern, particularly for children.

“Overflowing rivers, stagnant waters, and animal and human corpses are perfect breeding grounds for waterborne diseases,” said Marc Vincent, UNICEF representative in Haiti, in a statement. “Every day that goes by increases the threat of cholera. We are in a race against time to get to these children before diseases do.”

Aid organizations are still working to assess the extent of the damage caused by the hurricane, but the Red Cross has already launched an emergency appeal for $6.9 million “to provide medical, shelter, water and sanitation assistance to 50,000 people.” Tens of thousands of Haitians still live in feeble housing structures since the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed at least 230,000.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com