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The deadly trail of Hurricane Matthew

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A school in the Haitian village of Torbeck that has been destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. Numerous school and health centers have been totally or partially destroyed by the hurricane. Fran Afonso/Oxfam Intermón

Schools, health centers, and homes have been reduced to rubble in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, leaving families with nothing. 

by María José Agejas, journalist in the Communication Department of Oxfam Intermón

Jean Robert looks around, still unable to believe his eyes. “I never saw anything like it, the speed of it. Truly terrible.”

The primary school where he teaches was destroyed by the hurricane as it swept through. Luckily, thanks to radio announcements—which many people ignored—the children were not at school that day. “If the kids had been inside, there would have been many deaths.”

The school is in the little village of Torbeck, where Hurricane Matthew killed 18 people. Hardly any schools or health centers have been left standing in the areas hardest hit by the hurricane where, according to Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Damien Berrendorf, the damage to infrastructure is comparable to that caused by the 2010 earthquake.

Along the road from Les Cayes to Port Salut, Berrendorf’s words are shown to be true. Not a single house is unscathed. Some have lost their roofs, but many others, even those built of concrete blocks, have been reduced to rubble. All the electricity posts are lying on the ground, submerged in lakes that have formed where crops once stood. In an area where 80% of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, the immediate consequence is hunger. In this region, hunger is not lurking around the corner: it has been here from day one. With their houses flooded and their crops lost, many people who live from day to day without savings have nothing to eat or feed their children.

‘We have nothing, absolutely nothing,” says Senita Terbil, a 26-year-old mother of two. Her house was built of concrete blocks. Now it looks as if a bulldozer has flattened it. She has lost her home, her vegetable patch, and her animals. “We’d like to replant the vegetable garden, but we don’t have the means to do it. We have no seeds or tolos.” Her husband has built them a makeshift shelter out of sheets of corrugated iron. Inside, her sister-in-law is lying in bed. A tree fell on her, leaving her with a broken arm and leg, both of which are wrapped in torn sheets. She has no money to see a doctor.

The eastern tip of the island, where Matthew made landfall,was hit hardest by the hurricane. According to the United Nations, 750,000 people in the Grand’Anse and Sudregions need emergency aid. Port Salut was one of Haiti’s prettiest towns: a tourist destination, bordered by blue sea, but its colonial-era hotels were unable to withstand Matthew’s onslaught. The bridge across the river in the town center has disappeared. Everywhere residents are trying, machetes in hand, to chop away trees that have fallen on their houses, and hauling mattresses and clothing outside to dry in the sun, which came out again once the hurricane passed.

“Yes, we heard the message on the radio and television. We also received a text message on our mobiles,” explains Germaine Cheri, 52, a widowed mother of ten. “But in Haiti hurricane warnings are sometimes issued for what turns out to be only rain. We thought there would just be rain, but this time the hurricane came when we were sleeping and swept everything away, and then we saw it was another story altogether.”

Germaine Cheri has lost everything. ”I have nothing, not even food to give my children. We’ve lost everything that was in the house: our bed, our clothes. All I have is what I am wearing, nothing more.”

Standing nearby, 37-year-old Bernadette Julien, who is eight months pregnant with her eighth child, echoes Germaine’s story almost word for word: “All I have left are my children and the clothes I’m standing in. The house is completely destroyed. I have nothing to give my children.”

Case after case illustrates the tragic reality of this hurricane. There will likely be many more deaths in the short and medium term than those initially caused by the wind and rain. Not just because of crop losses, but also because there will probably be another outbreak of cholera, a disease linked to dirty water and poor hygiene that is already claiming lives in the affected areas.

Cholera first struck Haiti in 2010, brought in by UN peacekeeping forces after the earthquake. According to the Haitian government, 10,000 people have died since then and a total of 800,000 have had the disease. One of Oxfam’s first tasks after the hurricane has been to distribute hygiene kits and install tanks of clean water in some of the affected areas, to prevent further outbreak of cholera.

Unless an adequate response is planned to avoid repeating past errors, the hurricane will leave a long trail of death behind it, warns Oxfam. There is a huge need for earthquake and hurricane-proof rebuilding strategies, proper urban planning, and a thorough study of  risk prevention. 


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