Chantal, Haiti/Port-au-Prince/Daytona Beach, Florida: Hurricane Matthew‘s trail of destruction in Haiti stunned those emerging from the aftermath on Friday, with the number of dead soaring to 877, tens of thousands left homeless and outbreaks of cholera already claiming more lives.
Information trickled in from remote areas that were cut off by the storm and it became clear that at least 175 people died in villages clustered among the hills and on the coast of Haiti’s fertile western tip.
While highlighting the misery of underdevelopment in Haiti, which is still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake, the storm looked certain to rekindle the debate about global warming and the long-term threat posed by rising sea levels to low-lying cities and towns.
Rural clinics overflowed with patients whose wounds including broken bones had not been treated since the storm hit on Tuesday. Food was scarce and at least seven people died of cholera, likely because of flood water mixing with sewage.
The storm razed homes to their foundations. The corrugated metal roofs of those still standing were ripped off, the contents visible from above as if peering into doll’s houses.
At least three towns reported dozens of fatalities, including the hilly farming village of Chantal, whose mayor said 86 people were killed, mostly when trees crushed houses. He said 20 more people were missing.
“A tree fell on the house and flattened it, the entire house fell on us. I couldn’t get out,” said driver Jean-Pierre Jean-Donald, 27, who had been married for a year.
“People came to lift the rubble and then we saw my wife who had died in the same spot,” said Jean-Donald, his young daughter by his side, crying “Mommy.”
The death toll continued to rise on Friday in southwest Haiti. Dozens more were missing, many of them in the Grand’Anse region on the northern side of the peninsula.
“We flew over parts of the Grand’Anse region. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Frenel Kedner, a government official in the town of Jeremie in southwest Haiti. “The people urgently need food, water, medicine.”
Cholera cases rise
In the town of Anse-d’Hainault, seven people died of cholera, a disease that did not exist in Haiti until UN peacekeepers introduced it after a 2010 earthquake that killed some 200,000 people.
Another 17 cholera cases were reported in Chardonnieres on the south coast.
“Due to massive flooding and its impact on water and sanitation infrastructure, cholera cases are expected to surge after Hurricane Matthew and through the normal rainy season until the start of 2017,” the Pan American Health Organisation said in a statement.
With fatalities mounting, various government agencies and committees differed on total deaths. A Reuters count of deaths reported by civil protection and local officials put the toll at 877.
Haiti’s central civil protection agency, which takes longer to collate numbers because it needs to visually confirm victims itself, said 271 people died as Matthew smashed through the western peninsula on Tuesday with 145 mph (233 kph) winds and torrential rain.
Some 61,500 people were in shelters, the agency said.
Matthew pushed the sea into fragile coastal villages, some of which are only now being contacted.
Coastal town Les Anglais lost “several dozen” people, Louis-Paul Raphael, the central government representative in the region, told Reuters.
Les Anglais was the first place in Haiti that Matthew reached, as a powerful Category 4 storm before it moved north, lost strength and lashed central Florida on Friday.
With cellphone networks down and roads flooded by sea and river water, aid has been slow to reach towns and villages. Instead, locals have been helping each other.
“My house wasn’t destroyed, so I am receiving people, like it’s a temporary shelter,” said Bellony Amazan in the town of Cavaillon, where around a dozen people died. Amazan said she had no food to give people.
Outside Chantal, stall holders at a makeshift market were selling vegetables and soft drinks, brought in from Port-Au-Prince as roads were cleared to the capital.
“All our houses have been destroyed. This is our existence,” said one stall holder, who declined to give her name.
Hurricane Matthew hits US
Hurricane Matthew skirted Florida’s Atlantic coast on Friday and plowed northward over waters just off Georgia.
US President Barack Obama urged people not to be complacent and to heed safety instructions.
“The potential for storm surge, loss of life and severe property damage exists,” Obama told reporters after a briefing with emergency management officials about the fiercest cyclone to affect the US since Superstorm Sandy four years ago.
Matthew sideswiped Florida’s coast with winds of up to 120 mph (195 kph) but did not make landfall in the state. The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) downgraded the storm to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity as its sustained winds dropped to 110 mph. Category 5 is the strongest.
There were at least four storm-related deaths in Florida but no immediate reports of significant damage in cities and towns where the storm swamped streets, toppled trees and knocked out power to more than one million people.
Two people were killed by falling trees, according to Florida officials, and an elderly couple died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator while sheltering from the storm inside a garage.
Hurricane warnings late on Friday extended up the Atlantic coast from northeast Florida through Georgia and South Carolina and into North Carolina.
In Daytona Beach, the street under the city’s famed “World’s Most Famous Beach” sign was clogged with debris washed up by the ocean. The waves had receded by early afternoon but there was damage throughout the city, including a facade ripped off the front of a seaside hotel.
Robert Walker, a 51-year-old mechanic, weathered the worst of the storm in his seaside Daytona Beach apartment where high-powered winds peeled back the roof.
“It sounded like a jet plane coming over. I was scared,” said Walker as he stood in front of the battered remains of the two-story building..
At 11 pm EDT, Matthew‘s eye was about 115 miles (185 km) south-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and moving northward at 12 mph (19 kph), the NHC said.
After passing near or over the coast of Georgia it was on a track that would put it near or over South Carolina on Saturday. Though gradually weakening, it was forecast to remain a hurricane until it begins moving away from the US Southeast on Sunday, the NHC said.
Reluctant to leave
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was concerned that relatively light damage so far could give people up the coast a false sense of security.
“People should not be looking at the damages they’re seeing and saying this storm is not that bad,” Fugate told NBC.
“The real danger still is storm surge, particularly in northern Florida and southern Georgia. These are very vulnerable areas. They’ve never seen this kind of damage potential since the late 1800s,” Fugate said.
In St. Augustine just south of Jacksonville, Florida, about half of the 14,000 residents refused to heed evacuation orders despite warnings of an 8-foot storm surge that could sink entire neighborhoods, Mayor Nancy Shaver said in a telephone interview from the area’s emergency operations center.
Television images later showed water surging through streets in the historic downtown area of St. Augustine, the oldest US city and a major tourist attraction.
“There’s that whole inability to suspend disbelief that I think really affects people in a time like this,” Shaver said.