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Haiti Hurricane Aftermath More 'Catastrophic' As Devastation More Visible

Dieu Nalio Chery
AP via Miami Herald
A boy stands by a church destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in Saint-Louis-Sud in southwest Haiti.

The post-hurricane news out of Haiti took a more tragic turn Thursday – as the government announced a death toll far higher than expected. As communication is regained with Haiti’s southwest, the awful reality is more apparent.

After Hurricane Matthew tore through Haiti’s rural southern peninsula on Tuesday, the country initially reported five fatalities. But that was largely because transportation to the hardest hit areas was cut off by a major bridge wash-out.

A much darker picture has since emerged. Matthew’s furious winds and torrential rain decimated cities like Jeremie and Les Cayes. Thursday morning the Haitian government said at least 108 people had died. Interim President Jocelerme Privert called it “catastrophic.”

Ed Lozamo hosts a morning radio program in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

“A lot of places they haven’t reached yet, and so I’m sure under the rubble you’re going to find people who tried to ride it out and didn’t make it," says Ed Lozamo, who hosts a morning radio program, "Ed Loz Live," on Radio 1.

"So the death toll of 108 that the government announced today is going to be much worse than that. You’re talking about Port Salut, Chardonnieres, Les Anglais – all these towns are pretty much wiped out completely.”

Update: Indeed, Thursday evening the government more than doubled that toll to 283.

A big question is whether Haitians in the remote southwestern pockets had ample warning about Matthew and adequate places to seek safety. Lozamo says they may not have had enough advance notice of the hurricane to evacuate – but many would not have left anyway.

“Haitian people in the countryside, they care a lot about their properties, their farms," he says. "And they won’t leave their homes.”

Lozamo also works with a Haitian relief organization called the Man Dodo Humanitarian Foundation. He says the good news is that the government has finally reconnected Port-au-Prince to the southwest peninsula and can get supplies in.

“They created an alternate route around where the bridge was, and that will make it a little easier to get relief down to the south," he says. "Humanitarian aid, that’s what’s more important right now. Water, food, toiletry items.”

The government - which has had to postpone Sunday's presidential election because of the storm emergency - also made it clear it does not want to be as dependent on international relief as it was after Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake. But it will certainly need foreign donors and relief groups to deliver aid – and help rebuild.

Christy Delafied, a spokesperson in Haiti for the Oregon-based non-profit Mercy Corps, suggests her organization is sensitive to Haiti’s concerns about NGOs.

“ A lot of the images so far that we’ve seen have been taken from the air, and the devastation looks frightening," says Delafield. "But as we’re determining what the needs are we simultaneously look at whether or not there are shops open that have those supplies available for sale. It’s always preferable to keep the money in the local market and keep the economy moving because that stimulates recovery.”

The U.S. military’s Southern Command, based in Miami, is also deploying ships, helicopters, soldiers and sailors to southern Haiti. The mission is called Joint Task Force Matthew.

The Man Dodo Humanitarian Foundation is collecting relief supply donations for Haiti at 3333 NW 168th St in Miami Gardens, 305-628-3421. Its website is www.mandodo.org.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.