Homes leveled, cemeteries "floating up": the state of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew


Before Hurricane Matthew began its journey up the eastern seaboard, it tore through the Caribbean with life-threatening wind, rainfall and storm surges. Now, as parts of the U.S. still brace for the storm, Caribbean countries are taking stock of the devastation.

Perhaps none were as hard hit as Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, where officials say more than 842 people were killed in the storm, according to the Daily Beast. It's yet another devastating blow to the small island nation, which is still recovering from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 200,000

The southern part of Haiti bore the brunt of the destruction, with a reported 30,000 homes leveled in the country's Sud Department. Eighty percent of buildings in the city of Jeremie were reportedly destroyed, and 50 people died in the single commune of Roche-à-Bateaux, the BBC reported.

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Humanitarian workers on the ground in Haiti are still assessing the damage. In a Skype call Thursday from the capitol city of Port-au-Prince, Yvonne Helle, the United Nations Development Programme Country Director in Haiti, described how the hurricane hit the southwestern border towns "very, very hard."

"Haiti is so mountainous, so of course we've had tremendous mudslides — water cascading down mountains — tremendous quantities of water over a very short period of time," Helle said.

The onslaught of water has seriously affected the latrines and septic tanks, Helle said, and "a lot of the waste is floating up."

"Cemeteries are floating up," she added.

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The UNDP is "very concerned about the public health impact," Helle said — specifically, a potential cholera outburst. 

"The lack of access to drinking water — the residue water left behind mixed with waste water — graves that have started to come up ... that of course has an impact on any water-borne diseases that we can speak of," Helle said.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

Agriculture, already languishing in Haiti, could also be at risk. In Haiti, where approximately 2.5 million people live in extreme poverty in mostly rural areas, the population is heavily dependent on subsistence agriculture, according to USAID. Staple crops include corn, rice, beans and plantains.

"A lot of the crops have washed away," Helle said. "Most crops have been completely destroyed."

When it comes to public health, "we're also going to have a food insecurity problem," Helle said.

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With thousands of homes leveled during the storm, around 21,000 people are staying in 152 shelters, according to CBS News.

The conditions in those shelters are "terrible," Nixon Boumba, a Haiti-based country consultant for the American Jewish World Service, said in a Skype chat Thursday. AJWS is a nonprofit working to promote human rights and fight poverty in the developing world. In cases of humanitarian crises, like natural disasters, the organization funds relief efforts led by locals on the ground.

The shelters are over-crowded and "miss the basic needs like food, water, hygiene tools, beds" and more, Boumba said. "The government doesn't [have the] capacity to provide services that people need to live in those kinds of IDP [internally displaced person] camps with dignity."

Helle described the facilities as "very, very basic" — but at least the people in them are alive and safe, she pointed out.

"They've lost all their possessions, but they are safe, at least," Helle said.

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The storm hit during a "very critical moment" in Haiti's history, according to Boumba. Between political instability, unemployment, a devalued national currency and the cholera epidemic that spawned in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, it was "the worst time" for Hurricane Matthew to have battered the country.

When people in Haiti heard the hurricane was coming, "it was a very bad feeling," Boumba said. There were "many concerns, particularly for the poorest people who live in [the] poorest areas."

As Matthew makes its way up the east coast of the U.S., humanitarian workers urge the international community not to forget about the devastation it unleashed in Haiti. The UNDP, for one, is raising public funds to support the recovery effort in Haiti. 

People need to remember Haiti is experiencing a "critical humanitarian crisis," Boumba said.

As for how long it will take to rebuild in the wake of the storm, Helle said the UNDP is still focused on taking in the scope of the damage. For now, she said, "it's too early to tell."