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Hurricane Matthew: Haitians begin salvage effort as death toll nears 800

By David McFadden

People across south-west Haiti are digging through the wreckage of their homes, salvaging what they can from a deadly and devastating encounter with Hurricane Matthew.

The central government's official death toll stood at nearly 800, but authorities working on the ground in the remote corners of the south-western peninsula said it will probably be significantly higher when the full accounting is complete.

Saint-Victor Jeune, an official with the Civil Protection agency working in Beaumont, in the mountains on the outskirts of hard-hit Jeremie, said his team had found 82 bodies that had not been recorded by authorities in the capital because of patchy communications.

Most appeared to have died from falling debris from the winds that tore through the area at 145mph on Tuesday.

"We don't have any contact with Port-au-Prince yet and there are places we still haven't reached," Mr Jeune said, as he and a team of Civil Protection agents in orange vests combed the area.

As Haitians mourned their losses, they tried to recover what they could of their meagre possessions. Homes throughout the area were piles of rubble, the roofs stripped away, fruit gone from the trees.

Workers from the International Organisation of Migration and other groups are going through the area to assess the damage and provide assistance, although their efforts are being hampered by damaged roads, rough terrain and other factors.

"Devastation is everywhere," said Pilus Enor, mayor of Camp Perrin, a town near the port city of Les Cayes on the peninsula's south shore. "Every house has lost its roof."

Officials were especially concerned about the department of Grand-Anse on the northern tip of the peninsula, where they believe the death toll and damage is highest. The 283 deaths reported so far did not include Grand-Anse or its surrounding areas.

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

More bodies began to appear as waters receded in some places two days after Matthew's 145mph winds smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes, forcing thousands to flee.

Officials said that food and water are urgently needed, noting that crops had been levelled, wells inundated by seawater and some water treatment facilities destroyed.

Officials with the Pan American Health Organisation warned about a possible surge in cholera cases because of the widespread flooding. Haiti's cholera outbreak has killed about 10,000 people since 2010, when it was introduced into the country's biggest river from a UN base where Nepalese peacekeepers were deployed.

Haiti's 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.

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

In the coming days, the US military expects to help deliver food and water to hard-hit areas by helicopter.

After passing over Haiti, Matthew hit Cuba's lightly populated eastern tip on Tuesday night, damaging hundreds of homes in the eastern-most city of Baracoa but there were no reports of deaths.

Nearly 380,000 people were evacuated and measures were taken to protect infrastructure.

Matthew advanced up the length of the Bahamas on Wednesday and Thursday, tearing roofs away, toppling trees and causing flooding that trapped some people in their homes.

There have been no reports of casualties as the storm heads past Florida's coast.

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.


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