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Hurricane creates new crisis in Haiti, aid begins arriving

Hurricane creates new crisis in Haiti, aid begins arriving
Residents carry a coffin containing the remains of a pregnant woman, a victim of Hurricane Matthew, in Jeremie, Haiti, on Oct. 7, 2016. (Dieu Nalio Chery / Associated Press)

Jislene Jean-Baptiste and her neighbors had little before Hurricane Matthew, and now they have a lot less.

A grandmother who lives with her three daughters and their children in a one-room house in the devastated coastal town of Jeremie, Jean-Baptiste was surveying what remained of her home after Matthew tore across southwestern Haiti on Tuesday.

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There wasn't much. The storm surge pushed the Caribbean across the road and drenched everything she owns in waist-deep salt water, washing away the stores of rice and sugar she sells 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.

Many of her neighbors are in a similarly dire situation because of a storm that killed hundreds of people in Haiti. Its government has estimated at least 350,000 people need some kind of assistance in what is likely to be the country's worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

Katrina Legner, a 23-year-old mother of two, also saw the storm destroy her small, concrete-block home before she fled to the house of a cousin that was then also wrecked. "We have very little food and I'm getting worried," she said.

Amid the suffering, aid began pouring in to Jeremie, where thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed and many people were running low on food and facing an increased risk for cholera. Dozens of young Haitians came to the small airstrip along the coast to watch as a helicopter was unloaded with crates of food and water.

"My home is totally wrecked and I heard they were bringing food," said Richard David, 22. "I haven't had anything but water today and I'm hungry."

At least 470 people have died in Grand-Anse, the department where Jeremie is located. But the coordinator for the local Civil Protection Agency, Fridnel Kedler, told the Associated Press on Saturday, that officials still have not been able to reach two communities.

"The death toll is sure to go up," he said.

Haiti's overall death toll remains unknown. Death counts are frequently difficult to tabulate in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster in any country, though it is particularly difficult in remote and mountainous southwest Haiti.

Reports of deaths in those areas were slow to reach the Civil Protection Agency's headquarters in Port-au-Prince, where authorities said Saturday that the official death toll for the whole country so far was 336 people.

It wasn't immediately clear whether some of the 470 deaths in Grand-Anse were included in that count. The agency also said that more than 60,000 people remained in shelters.

The storm left signs of devastation all around the southwestern peninsula. Outside Jeremie, home after home was in ruins. Drew Garrison, a Haiti-based missionary who flew in Friday, said several fishing villages were submerged and he could see bodies floating in the water.

"Anything that wasn't concrete was flattened," said Garrison, whose organization, Mission of Hope Haiti, based in Austin, Texas, was bringing in a barge loaded with emergency supplies on Saturday. "There were several little fishing villages that just looked desolate, no life."

The Pan American Health Organization and others warned of a surge in cholera cases because of the widespread flooding caused by Matthew. Haiti's cholera outbreak has killed roughly 10,000 people and sickened more than 800,000 since 2010, when it was introduced into the country's biggest river from a U.N. base where Nepalese peacekeepers were deployed.

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Petuelle Fontaine, 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.

"We have no cholera vaccines here. None," she said as sweat dripped from her brow while she tended to the sick.

Eighteen patients arrived on Friday, and another nine showed up early Saturday.

Among them was Bellot Phafoune, a heavily pregnant woman who said she started getting cholera symptoms on Friday after eating a meal.

"I didn't want to take any chances and rushed here," said Phafoune, who was from a rural village about an hour's drive away from Jeremie.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien called the hurricane's damage a major blow to Haiti's reconstruction effort and the fight against cholera.

"We expect that homes, schools and cholera treatment facilities have been destroyed and that water systems, roads and bridges have been severely damaged," he said in a statement that also announced that the U.N.'s Central Emergency Response Fund was releasing $5 million to help Haiti. Earlier this week, the fund released a loan of $8 million to UNICEF to scale up response to Haiti's cholera epidemic.

Solette Phelicin, a mother of five who lost her home and her small fruit and vegetable plot, watched from her yard as U.N. peacekeepers patrolled the airstrip. She said they were hungry and desperately in need of food.

"Jeremie might get rebuilt after I'm dead, maybe, but I doubt it," she said.

As Haitians mourned their losses, they tried to recover what they could of their belongings. Homes throughout the area were piles of rubble, the roofs mangled or stripped away.

Among those killed were a woman and her 6-year-old daughter who frantically abandoned their flimsy home and headed to a nearby church to seek shelter as Matthew surged in early Tuesday, said Ernst Ais, mayor of the town of Cavaillon.

"On the way to the church, the wind took them," Ais said.

International aid groups are already appealing for donations for a lengthy recovery effort in Haiti, the hemisphere's least-developed and most aid-dependent nation.

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UPDATES:

2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with a death toll of at least 470 in Grand-Anse and other details.

This article was originally published at 7:55 a.m.

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