As Hurricane Matthew lashes Haiti on its way toward Cuba, Oxfam and partners are ready to respond

By Oxfam
Cite Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince that houses thousands of Haitians, hours before Hurricane Matthew is expected to hit, in Haiti, October 3, 2016. Cite Soleil is right by the ocean and has multiple canals that are already filled with garbage. EPA/Bahare Khodabande

Aid workers worry about the potential for a spike in cholera cases in Haiti.

As Hurricane Matthew crawled across Haiti dumping torrents of rain and lashing communities with sustained winds near 145 miles per hour on its way to Cuba, Oxfam warned about the devastation that will be left in the storm’s wake.

“The catastrophe is huge,” said Younes Karroum, an Oxfam program manager in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “Major cities are being flooded and communication has been cut off as of 5 a.m. this morning. Many bridges have been destroyed.”

The US National Hurricane Center was predicting that the eye of Matthew, now a category 4 hurricane, would hit eastern Cuba by late Tuesday afternoon and would remain powerful at least through Wednesday night. In southern Haiti and southwestern Dominican Republic, the storm was expected to dump between 15 and 25 inches of rain, with some places receiving up to 40 inches.

 “Life-threatening flash floods and mudslides are likely from this rainfall in southern and northwestern Haiti, the southwestern Dominican Republic, and eastern Cuba,” warned the hurricane center.

Storm surges could also threaten coastal areas. The hurricane center said on the south coast of Haiti a storm surge combined with large waves could raise water between 7 and 10 feet above normal tide levels. On Cuba’s southern coast east of Cabo Cruz, tide levels could be 7 to 11 feet above normal. Across Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, governments advised the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in high risk areas.

“The first need is to save lives and to help people who are in crisis by flooding or whose homes have been destroyed,” said Karroum. “After that, the first needs will be fresh drinking water, food, and first response aid like shelters and sanitation.”

"Water is going to be a major issue as of today. Our priority is to get clean water and hygiene items to families as fast as possible to avoid a spike in cases of cholera,” said Jean Claude Fignole, Oxfam’s influence program director in Haiti. "Oxfam has teams deployed to six priority areas in support of the Haitian government including in the south, which has borne the brunt of the storm. We are preparing to provide drinking water and hygiene kits to people in these areas.”

The potential for outbreaks of cholera—a waterborne disease—is also worrying aid providers. This storm will also destroy crops and other livelihoods that people rely on for food and income, which will leave many hungry in the months ahead.

In Cuba, as the storm bore down on the eastern part of the country, Oxfam staffers were on the ground ready to respond.

“Oxfam has been working in the area--already one of Cuba’s most vulnerable—for over 20 years,” said Jerome Faure, Oxfam’s director in Cuba, adding that Oxfam had rapidly set up an evaluation team to assess damages to infrastructure and the impact on communities.

"Oxfam carried out a significant humanitarian response after hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. This has given us the experience we need to help communities better prepare for these types of shocks and bounce back quickly,” said Faure.  “We are supporting the Cuban government’s system for risk reduction and management and will work in coordination with them to ensure support reaches those who need it most."

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