PORT-AU-PRINCE/PORT SALUT, HAITI/JEREMIE HAITI – Haiti started burying some of its dead in mass graves in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, a government official said on Sunday, as cholera spread in the devastated southwest and the death toll from the storm rose to 1,000 people.
The powerful hurricane, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, slammed into Haiti on Tuesday, whipping it with 145 mph (233 kph) winds and torrential rains.
A Reuters tally of numbers from local officials showed that 1,000 people were killed by the storm in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas.
The official death toll from the central civil protection agency is 336, a slower count because officials must visit each village to confirm the numbers.
Authorities had to start burying the dead in mass graves in Jeremie as the bodies were starting to decompose, Kedner Frenel, the most senior central government official in the Grand’Anse region on Haiti’s western peninsula.
Frenel said 522 people died in Grand’Anse alone. A tally of death reported by mayors from 15 of 18 municipalities in Sud Department on the south side of the peninsula showed 386 people there. In the rest of the country, 92 people died, the same tally showed.
Frenel said there was great concern about the cholera spreading, and that authorities were focused on getting water, food and medication to the thousands of people living in shelters.
Cholera causes severe diarrhea and can kill within hours if untreated. It is spread through contaminated water and has a short incubation period, which leads to rapid outbreaks.
Government teams fanned out across the hard-hit southwestern tip of the country over the weekend to repair treatment centers and reach the epicenter of one outbreak.
A small airstrip at the edge of town meanwhile hums with activity. Aid convoys are arriving from the capital, now that some roads washed out by Hurricane Matthew have been cleared. A barge carrying food and water is moored offshore.
An international response is finally getting underway as Haitian authorities try to gauge the full extent of the staggering blow delivered by Hurricane Matthew, including hundreds dead and tens of thousands of homes obliterated.
The precise death toll remained uncertain Sunday. Guillaume Silvera, a senior official with the Civil Protection Agency in the storm-blasted Grand-Anse Department, which includes Jeremie, said at least 522 deaths were confirmed there alone — not including people in several remote communities still cut off by collapsed roads and bridges.
National Civil Protection headquarters in Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, said Saturday its official count for the whole country was 336, which included 191 deaths in Grand-Anse.
Haiti began three days of formal national mourning on Sunday under a decree issued by President Jocelerme Privert, even as aid began to move toward flattened communities.
“It’s beginning to pick up now,” said Stephane Rolland, a regional coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross, as workers unloaded blankets, soap, bleach and other critical items in Jeremie on Saturday.
The first two cargo planes of humanitarian aid from the United States arrived on Saturday at the Toussaint Louverture airport in the capital Port of Prince. U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean said that three other planes are expected to arrive in the next few days with a total amount of 480 metric tons of humanitarian supplies.
There are clearly limits, though, including the fact that the airstrip in Jeremie is unable to accommodate large cargo planes, and only operates in the daytime.
Many of the villages in the southwestern peninsula are difficult to reach. And people are growing increasingly desperate after losing everything when the storm ripped through the area on Tuesday.
Dony St. Germain, an official with El Shaddai Ministries International, said young men in villages off the road between the southern city of Les Cayes and Jeremie were starting to put up blockades of rocks and broken branches to halt the convoys.
“They are seeing these convoys coming through with supplies and they aren’t stopping. They are hungry and thirsty and some are getting angry,” said St. Germain.
Government officials estimate that at least 350,000 people need assistance, and concern was growing over an increase in cholera cases following widespread flooding unleashed by Matthew. An ongoing cholera outbreak has already killed roughly 10,000 people and sickened more than 800,000 since 2010, when the infectious disease was introduced into the country’s biggest river from a U.N. base where Nepalese peacekeepers were deployed.
Maria Sofia Sanon, a health worker overseeing the open-air cholera treatment center in a corner of Jeremie’s main hospital, said they were ill-equipped to deal with patients. The area was strewn with broken tree branches, and a group of young mothers sat outside holding up the arms of their glassy-eyed children being rehydrated via IVs.
“They’re not supposed to be in the sun, but we have no more beds,” Sanon said.
The World Food Program says there has been massive destruction of crops. Hospitals and clinics have been damaged or destroyed as they struggle to deal with an increase in patients with injuries sustained during the storm as well as an apparent increase in cholera. UNICEF said that in Grand Anse alone there were 66,000 houses destroyed and 20,000 heavily damaged.
“Information gathered from various sources in the field suggests that the human toll (dead and injured) will be heavier than the current official figures,” the agency said in a report.
Jocelyne Saint Preux was part of the crowd that lined up in an orderly fashion to get food as aid began to arrive, including shipments of food and other emergency supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development carried by waves of military transport helicopters.
The mother of three children whose home was destroyed said officials were handing out wheat, beans, oil and salt.
“Yes, they brought food, but it’s not sufficient,” she said. “There’s no water. There’s no charcoal.”
As aid trickled into Jeremie, Jislene Jean-Baptiste surveyed what remained of the one-room house that the grandmother shares with her three daughters and their children. There wasn’t much left. Storm surge flowed across the road and drenched her belongings in waist-deep salt water, washing away the stores of rice and sugar she regularly sold at the market to support her family. Then the wind tore off her roof.
“That storm was the most terrifying thing that ever happened here,” she said.
Haiti faces a growing cholera outbreak that threatens to turn its disaster even more deadly.
In Port Salut, a smashed-up town on Haiti’s southern peninsula that was among those that bore the brunt of Hurricane Matthew, fears are rising.
The town’s sole hospital on Sunday recorded its first death from the disease, a man of undisclosed age.
Another nine patients brought in within the past two days are being treated for the illness, which is caught from contaminated water.
Other cholera deaths have been reported in different parts of southern Haiti.
The outbreak is especially alarming for this destitute tropical nation. In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, cholera was inadvertently introduced by U.N. peacekeepers and went on to kill around 10,000 people.
Civil defense officials have put the death toll from the hurricane itself at 336, although some officials said it topped 400.
Dr. Stevenson Desravines, the director of the Port Salut hospital, told AFP that cholera was rapidly becoming a “fatal danger” for the town and surrounding area.
“It’s something that is starting,” he said, adding that his facility lacked personnel, medicine and equipment to tackle that and other health problems.
“Since the storm, we are receiving around 100 patients a day, with 85 percent from storm-related injuries,” mainly broken bones, bleeding and concussions from falling trees, roofs and other objects, he said.
The remainder had other, regular illnesses such as asthma and high blood pressure.
Before the cholera death, the hospital had registered three patients deceased from their injuries sustained last Tuesday when the storm struck with tremendous fury.
The hospital, standing intact on a street of destroyed and damaged houses and fallen trees, has a staff of 55 — a third of them Cuban, who are operating under a years-old cooperation agreement.
One of the Cuban personnel, who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media, said storm-related injuries were currently the health priority for his team.
But after he spoke the cholera death occurred in the hospital, galvanizing staff and focusing attention on the new threat.
AFP journalists saw the covered body of the deceased patient in a hospital room, and Desravines confirmed the death was from the disease.
Outside, sheltering in the shade from the bright sun, another cholera-afflicted patient, a weak-looking woman, received fluid intravenously.
Inside and outside the hospital, used soda bottles filled with diluted chlorine hung from handrails, encouraging staff, patients and visitors to regularly disinfect their hands to avoid catching the disease.
A sign pointed those with suspected cholera to use a separate entrance.
Desravines said that so far he had received no help from the United Nations or other aid organizations in the country.
“We are waiting for more personnel, more supplies, including intravenous bags, medicines and cleaning products,” he said.