Hurricane death toll jumps sharply in hard-hit Haiti

LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) — Haitian officials on Thursday dramatically raised the known death toll from Hurricane Matthew as they finally began to reach corners of the country that had been cut off by the rampaging storm.

Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph announced that at least 108 had died, up from a previous count of 23. That increased the hurricane’s overall toll across the Caribbean to 114.

Officials were especially concerned about the department of Grand-Anse, at the northern tip of the peninsula that was slammed by the Category 4 storm, severing roads and communications links.

Officials with the Civil Protection Agency said 38 of the known deaths were reported in Grand-Anse.

“Devastation is everywhere,” Pilus Enor, mayor of the town of Camp Perrin, told The Associated Press. “Every house has lost its roof. All the plantations have been destroyed. …This is the first time we see something like this.”

People faced an immediate hunger crisis in Grand-Anse’s largest city of Jeremie, said Maarten Boute, chairman of telecom Digicel Haiti, who flew to the city in a helicopter.

Matthew mashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore off roofs, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee. In the seaport of Les Cayes, many searched for clean water as they lugged mattresses and other belongings they were able to salvage.

“Nothing is going well,” said Jardine Laguerre, a teacher. “The water took what little money we had. We are hungry.”

Authorities and aid workers were just beginning to get a clear picture of what they fear is the country’s biggest disaster in years.

The interior minister said food and water were urgently needed, noting that crops had been leveled, wells inundated by seawater and some water treatment facilities destroyed.

Before hitting Haiti, the storm was blamed for four deaths in the Dominican Republic, one in Colombia and one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

So far, there were no reports of casualties from better-equipped Cuba or the Bahamas, which was being pummeled by the hurricane Thursday.

There was wreckage and misery everywhere in Haiti’s southern peninsula towns, where Matthew hit around daybreak Tuesday with 145 mph (235 kph) winds.

“The floodwater took all the food we have in the house. Now we are starving and don’t have anything to cook,” farmer Antoine Louis said, standing in brown water up to his thighs in the doorway of his deluged concrete shack.

In Aquin, a coastal town outside Les Cayes, people trudged through mud around the wreckage of clapboard houses and tiny shops.

Cenita Leconte was one of many who initially ignored calls to evacuate vulnerable shacks before Matthew roared ashore. The 75-year-old was thankful she finally complied and made it through the terrifying ordeal with her life.

“We’ve lost everything we own. But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died,” she said as neighbors poked through wreckage hoping to find at least some of their meager possessions.

The government has estimated at least 350,000 people need some kind of assistance after the disaster.

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.

When Category 4 Hurricane Flora hit Haiti in 1963, it killed as many as 8,000 people.

In coming days, U.S. military personnel equipped with nine helicopters were expected to start arriving to help deliver food and water to hard-hit areas.

While recovery efforts continued in Haiti, Matthew pummeled the Bahamian capital of Nassau with winds of 140 mph (220 kph).

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Nassau, but the storm ripped off roofs, uprooted trees and caused flooding that trapped some people in their homes. Authorities urged people to stay indoors while they conducted search and rescue operations.

In nearby Cuba, Matthew blew across that island’s sparsely populated eastern tip, destroying dozens of homes and damaging hundreds in the island’s easternmost city, Baracoa. But the government oversaw the evacuation of nearly 380,000 people and strong measures were taken to protect communities and infrastructure, U.N. officials said.

Matthew was on a path forecast to take it close to the U.S. East Coast, where authorities ordered large-scale evacuations. Matthew had dropped slightly to a Category 3 storm after crossing land in Haiti and eastern Cuba, but strengthened once again to a Category 4.

Matthew’s center was about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east-southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida. It had maximum sustained winds of 140 mph (220 kph) and was moving northwest at 13 mph (20 kph) at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

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