By Dennis Sadowski
Emergency aid slowly began to reach some of the thousands of Haitians displaced by Hurricane Matthew in the country’s picturesque southwest as reports of casualties slowly trickled in from communities cut off by the storm.
The number of deaths reached 842 on 7 October, two days after the storm’s 230 km/h winds and torrential rains slammed into the country, according to a tally by Reuters based on conversations with local officials.
However, Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency reported that 271 people had died. The agency’s accounting of casualties is lower because of a policy to count only the bodies that emergency workers can actually see.
Reports of damage and casualties in Cuba and other nations affected by the storm were sporadic. Cuba’s easternmost region experienced widespread damage. There were no details on casualties available.
Emergency supplies that had been stored in warehouses before the storm were being distributed to people whose homes were turned into matchsticks by Matthew, said Chris Bessey, Haiti Country Director for Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
CRS staff flew into Les Cayes, a city of 71,000 on the southwest coast. Mr Bessey said thousands of people remained in shelters in the city.
“I don’t know if that is decreasing. I imagine that won’t decrease all that quickly because more than 80 percent of the houses were damaged or destroyed,” he said.
Mr Bessey expressed concern for outlying coastal communities on the far end of Haiti’s southern peninsula, which took the brunt of Matthew’s assault and have been cut off from communications.
“Time is of the essence and we want to keep going,” Mr Bessey told Catholic News Service from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
In a telegram to Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Les Cayes, President of the Haitian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, said Pope Francis wanted the people of Haiti to know how sad he was to hear of the death and destruction brought by Hurricane Matthew.
Pope Francis offered condolences to “all those who lost a loved one” and assured “the injured and all those who have lost their homes and belongings” that he was close to them through prayer.
“Welcoming and encouraging solidarity in facing the country’s latest trial, the Holy Father entrusts all Haitians to the maternal protection of Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” said the telegram, released on 7 October by the Vatican.
The US bishops’ overseas relief and development agency planned to send additional staff and vehicles into the region. Among the areas CRS was attempting to reach was Jeremie, a town northwest of Les Cayes. Initial reports said that little was left standing after the storm passed.
Meanwhile, on 7 October CRS committed $5 million as an initial contribution to help Haiti and other Caribbean nations to recover from the storm, the strongest to hit the region in a decade.
“Haiti in particular has once again been struck by tragedy,” Sean Callahan, Chief Operating Officer of CRS, said in a statement announcing the aid package.
“This commitment shows that we will continue to stand with its people, offering our hand in friendship to help and support them in this time of dire need.”
Mr Bessey said food, water and hygiene and kitchen kits stored in a warehouse in Les Cayes were undamaged when Matthew’s fierce winds tore part of a roof off the facility. Workers planned to complete repairs by October 7 so that the facility could be fully operational again, he said.