Number of dead in Haiti rises sharply into the hundreds as Hurricane Matthew leaves behind trail of destruction.
The number of people killed in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew has risen sharply into the hundreds, as coastal villages and towns began making contact with the outside world two days after being hit by the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade.
Bodies started to appear late on Thursday as waters receded in some places after Matthew’s 235 kilometres-per-hour winds smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee.
With the numbers increasing quickly, different government agencies and committees gave contrasting death tolls. Earlier on Thursday, officials had said the number of dead stood at 283, but a later Reuters news agency tally of deaths reported by civil protection officials showed the storm killed at least 339 people.
Most of the fatalities were in towns and fishing villages around the western end of Tiburon peninsula in Haiti’s southwest, with many victims killed by falling trees, flying debris and swollen rivers.
At least 50 people were reported to have died in coastal Roche-a-Bateau, which local officials described as "devastated".
"I’ve never seen anything like this," Louis Paul Raphael, a central government representative in Roche-a-Bateau, told Reuters.
Inland in Chantal, the toll rose to 90 late on Thursday evening, the town’s mayor said.
’Everyone is a victim’
In the Sous-Roche district of Les Cayes, Haiti’s third city on its exposed southern coast, residents tried to help their neighbours.
"I’ve been on my feet for two days without sleep. We need to help each other," Dominique Osny told AFP news agency amid the debris and destruction left when the storm passed through on Tuesday.
"Everyone is a victim here, houses have been washed away, we lost all the roofing. I lost everything, right up to my birth certificate," he said, citing a vital document hard to replace in Haiti.
"I thought I was going to die. I looked death in the face," said 36-year-old Yolette Cazenor, standing in front of a house smashed in two by a fallen coconut palm.
Along with the human devastation, the storm killed livestock and destroyed crops in parts of the impoverished nation.
"We have nothing left to survive on. All the crops have gone, all fruit trees are down. I don’t have a clue how this is going to be fixed," Marc Soniel Noel, the deputy mayor of Chantal, told Reuters.
Matthew is the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix in 2007 and was closing in on Florida as a Category 4 cyclone, the second strongest on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale.
Four people were killed over the weekend in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
The devastation in Haiti prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election scheduled for Sunday.
Poverty, weak government and precarious living conditions for many of its citizens make Haiti particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.
In 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake wrecked the capital, Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people.
Following the earthquake, UN peacekeepers inadvertently introduced cholera to the country, killing at least 9,000 and infecting hundreds of thousands more.
The Pan American Health Organization said on Thursday it was preparing for a possible cholera surge in Haiti after the hurricane because the flooding was likely to contaminate water supplies.
Millions flee in US
Carrying extremely dangerous winds of 220km/h, Matthew pounded the northwestern part of the Bahamas as it barrelled towards the southeast US coast where millions of residents heeded warnings to flee inland.
Matthew’s top sustained winds had dropped to 209km/h by Thursday night.
But it remained a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity as it neared Florida, where it could either plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew’s have struck Florida, and the NHC warned of "potentially disastrous impacts".
The US National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.