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US battens down the hatches as Haiti devastated by Hurricane Matthew

07 October 2016


A woman walks in a street as Hurricane Matthew passes through Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday.

A woman walks in a street as Hurricane Matthew passes through Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday.

MORE THAN 300 people have been killed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as Hurricane Matthew brings devastation to an island that has yet to recover from the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. The worst affected area is the Grand’Anse district on the south-western tip of the island, which was battered by 145mph winds.

The full extent of the damage is not known. Communications and transport infrastructure had not recovered from the 2010 earthquake; many residents were living in tents and other flimsy structures. Now, phone lines to the region have been cut and a key bridge has been destroyed. Officials say that other roads are impassable.

The already much-delayed presidential election, which was due to take place in Haiti on Sunday after numerous cancellations over the past two years, was once again called off as many of the churches and schools that were to be used as polling stations have been damaged.

As the hurricane moved on towards the United States — it was expected to reach the Florida peninsula overnight on Thursday, and hit Georgia and the eastern Carolinas over the weekend — aid agencies warn that Haiti is still at risk.

“We are expecting to see widespread flooding and landslides,” a Tearfund spokeswoman said. “Haiti is heavily deforested, and, without trees, the risk of landslides increases. Tearfund’s partners are opening up schools and church buildings where people can safely shelter, and are continually monitoring the situation. We have activated our contingency plans.”

Before the hurricane, World Vision staff in Haiti were monitoring weather forecasts. “When news of the potential hit, World Vision staff on the ground immediately began pre-positioning as many supplies as possible,” the agency’s director of programmes in Haiti, John Hasse, said.

“Currently, we are ready to support up to 15,000 families with items including blankets, torches, and tarpaulins. We have also stocked up on items from hygiene kits that include soap and toothbrushes to kitchen sets and baby kits.”

A number of aid agencies have launched emergency appeals, including Christian Aid. They describe Hurricane Matthew as “the worst storm in almost a decade.”

Christian Aid’s country manager for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Prospery Raymond, said: “As Haiti’s frightened people emerged from shelter, the damage to their homes and livelihoods became clear. Thousands have lost their homes, corn and banana crops have been flattened, and livestock have been swept away.”

The south-west of the country has been hit hardest: flooding there has been described as “truly catastrophic”.

Another aid agency already active in Haiti is Samaritan’s Purse. Its head of programmes and projects, Chris Blackham, said that “Whilst we are still assessing the damage, it’s clear Matthew has delivered a potentially catastrophic strike to an already struggling nation. . . Right now, we are encouraging Christians around the world to lift up this vulnerable nation and the whole Caribbean in their prayers.”

The diocese of Haiti is part of the US-based Episcopal Church. Its in-house aid agency, Episcopal Relief and Development, said that “following the storm’s impact, local churches are likely to aid in assessing damage, confirming the safety of members and others in their communities, and using available facilities and resources to respond to immediate needs.”

The diocese’s chief of operations, Sikhumbuzo Vundla, told the Episcopal News Service that all the clergy of the diocese and their families survived; and that Bishop Jean-Zaché Duracin and his family were safe and sheltering at home.

In the US, preparations were being made for Hurricane Matthew’s arrival: state authorities in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina prepared to evacuate some two million people.

Florida is expected to be in the direct path of the hurricane, which is strengthening as it approaches the mainland. The diocese of Florida closed its office and cancelled events; and the diocese of Georgia has said that its offices will close “in the event of a voluntary or mandatory evacuation”.

It has advised clergy to prepare a communion kit, and to “secure valuables and files in a waterproof and fireproof location”.

President Obama has ordered disaster-response teams and relief supplies to be sent to the states likely to be affected, in advance of Hurricane Matthew’s arrival. “I want to emphasise to the public: this is a serious storm,” he said. “So I want to make sure that everybody is paying attention to your local officials. If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously. . . We hope for the best, but we want to prepare for the worst.”

He urged Americans to support the people of Haiti, “even as we prepare for the hurricane here at home”.

He continued: “Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world [and] is already suffering from a range of previous disasters. It has been hit really hard by this stor,m and we anticipate that they are going to need substantial help. There may be similar needs in places like the Bahamas.”

He asked people to “help make life a little bit easier for people who didn’t have a lot to begin with, and who are now really getting hammered”.

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