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Hurricane-ravaged Haitians pray in destroyed churches as desperation grows

Published 09/10/2016

People unload food and water boated in from the Mission of Hope charity after Hurricane Matthew swept through Jeremie (AP)
People unload food and water boated in from the Mission of Hope charity after Hurricane Matthew swept through Jeremie (AP)

Survivors of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti put on their Sunday finest and picked their way through the debris to pray in ruined churches, while desperation grew in other parts of the country and international rescue efforts were stepped up.

Haitian authorities are still unsure of the extent of the disaster, with some communities still cut off. But tens of thousands of homes were obliterated and the death toll is already in the hundreds.

Guillaume Silvera, a senior official with the Civil Protection Agency in the storm-blasted Grand-Anse Department, which includes Jeremie, said at least 522 deaths were confirmed there alone - not including people in several remote communities still cut off by collapsed roads and bridges.

National Civil Protection headquarters in the capital Port-au-Prince, meanwhile, said its official count for the whole country is 336, which includes 191 deaths in Grand-Anse.

Despite the loss, families packed what remained of Jeremie's churches, many seated in pews under open sky because Matthew ripped away roofs and even walls of the sanctuaries. At least one was so badly damaged that worshippers set up an altar and prayed outside.

Elise Pierre, 80, said she believed it was a divine miracle that she and her loved ones survived.

"If God wasn't protecting us we'd all be gone today, blown into the ocean or up into the mountains," said Ms Pierre, who had a gash on her forehead she sustained when her sheet metal roof collapsed during the height of Matthew's fury.

The sound of hammering could be heard on nearly every street in Jeremie, a city near the tip of Haiti's south-west peninsula, as people patched their roofs as best as they could.

On one corner, Jameson Pierre was mixing cement and making them into blocks. The 22-year-old storm refugee, whose family is in an emergency shelter, saw at least one bright side to the disaster.

"There will be lots and lots of jobs since so many homes were knocked down. I've been working for the last three days straight," he said, adding that he is earning about 80p a day.

The first two cargo planes of humanitarian aid from the United States arrived on Saturday in the capital, and three more are due in the next few days.

But there are difficulties in getting aid to the needy, including the fact that the airstrip in Jeremie is unable to accommodate large cargo planes, and only operates during the day.

Many of the villages in the south-western peninsula are difficult to reach. And people are growing increasingly desperate after losing everything when the storm ripped through the area on Tuesday.

Dony St Germain, an official with El Shaddai Ministries International, said young men in villages off the road between the southern city of Les Cayes and Jeremie are starting to put up blockades of rocks and broken branches to halt the convoys.

"They are seeing these convoys coming through with supplies and they aren't stopping. They are hungry and thirsty and some are getting angry," he said.

Government officials estimate that at least 350,000 people need assistance, and concern is growing over an increase in cholera cases following widespread flooding unleashed by Matthew.

An ongoing cholera outbreak has already killed roughly 10,000 people and left more than 800,000 unwell since 2010.

Maria Sofia Sanon, a health worker overseeing the open-air cholera treatment centre in a corner of Jeremie's main hospital, said they are ill-equipped to deal with patients.

Jocelyne Saint Preux was part of the crowd that lined up in an orderly fashion in Jeremie to get food as aid began to arrive, including shipments of food and other emergency supplies from the US.

The mother-of-three, whose home was destroyed, said officials are handing out wheat, beans, oil and salt.

"Yes, they brought food, but it's not sufficient," she said. "There's no water. There's no charcoal."


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