Facing a death toll of at least 108 people and widespread catastrophic damage to their country, Haitian government officials speaking in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew on Thursday vowed to take charge of their country’s reconstruction — even as they had yet to assess the extent of destruction from the storm.
“The situation is catastrophic,” President Jocelerme Privert said. “The situation is critical.”
Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph confirmed the number of dead. Privert, who spoke at a press conference on the grounds of the National Palace, said there has been “enormous” damage to the country.
“There are a lot of areas in the country that have been affected; a lot of places that are difficult to access,” he said.
Haitian officials said more than 28,000 houses have been damaged so far but evaluation is only in the initial stages. All international assistance will be coordinated through the Haitian government, they said, as the nation began the painful assessment of damage.
On Wednesday Privert, traveled in a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft and got his first look at the battered coastline along the southern peninsula. He offered sympathies to all the families impacted by the storm.
“What we saw out of the airplane’s window,” he said, “the situation is really catastrophic...it is truly a disaster.”
On Thursday, he hopes to actually land in one of the sites when he visits by helicopter. Two U. S. helicopters also deployed to the area, and two United Nations M-17s landed in Jérémie. On board one of the aircraft was Haitian National Police Chief Michel-Ange Gedeon.
Privert said while he will visit cities in the Grand’ Anse and the Grand South, other ministers will deploy by SUV to other communities. Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles is supposed to visit the far northwest, where the storm inflicted considerable damage along the coast, leaving at least one person dead.
The Haitian government said it welcomes international assistance, but that unlike after the earthquake in 2010 — when the international community decided where aid would go, without accounting for where it actually went — the Haitian government will take charge of the reconstruction after Matthew.
A ministerial commission was empaneled to coordinate the aid.
“The response that all of our partners want to give, it is us, the government who will tell them where we have needs,” said Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles. “So the different sectors can have control over what’s happening on the ground.”
People will not “just be able to land and say they are here to bring assistance, and then when we do the evaluation we realize that there is nothing to show for it,” he said.
As Haitian government ministers deployed across the country Thursday, they were accompanied by United Nations disaster response teams and humanitarian groups.
Speaking at UN headquarters in New York, Farhan Haq, a spokesman, said Haitian officials estimate that at least 350,000 people are in immediate need of humanitarian help, although that number may rise as assessments come in from areas with limited communication and access.
Haq reported that more than15,600 people were evacuated and nearly 1,900 homes were flooded. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.
More than 21,000 people remained in shelters, according to Edgar Celestin, spokesman from the Office of Protection Civil said. He said the number of deaths and the amount of damage both are expected to rise, especially in hard hit areas like the Grand' Anse.
The department on Haiti's southern peninsula remains mostly cut off from communication, with the worst damage reported from Port Salut West to Dame Marie. Other parts of the country were also seeing major damage.
"Everybody's house is destroyed, the people can't eat and have to drink coconut water to sustain them," said Sen. Francky Exius, who is from Les Cayes.
Exius, who complained about the slow response of the government, said two bridges are damaged in Port Salut.
"The people are demoralized, they have no hope,” he said.
Reports also began coming in Thursday on widespread devastation in Jérémie, in the Grand’ Anse, where food was reported to be scarce with gardens destroyed.
Jean-Michel Vigreux, CARE Haiti country director, reported that 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed.
“All phone lines and electricity are down. Access is completely cut off, and everyone is running out of food and money. The bank is offline. Everyone is very shaken up,” he reported.
In Arcahaie, the biggest banana-growing region in Haiti, approximately 80 percent of banana crops were destroyed by winds and flooding, reported Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit providing humanitarian relief in the country.
Delafield said in an email that the destroyed banana crops supported about 20,000 families in the region, and that farmers may have difficulty replanting the crops because of salt water intrusion from flooding.
Cholera has also been a fear in the wake of the storm.
Vigreux reported three cases in the Jérémie hospital but the facility has no generator. The World Health Organization reported five new cases of cholera in Randel on Oct. 3.
Since the large cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010, the epidemic has been contained but outbreaks continue. According to the WHO, Haiti has reported 754, 972 cholera cases, including 8,863 deaths, since the beginning of the epidemic in October 2010 until the end of December 2015.
A total of 36,045 cholera cases were reported in 2015, an increase of 30 percent, or 27,753 cases, over the prior year.
Vigreux also reported that Jacmel, capital of the Department South-East, was hit hard, with the number of people in shelters rising from 2,700 to 4,000.
The U.S., Venezuela and Holland have all offered aid to Haiti in the aftermath of the storm. A humanitarian flight from Venezuela flew into Haiti yesterday with supplies to help victims.
The World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, along with non-government organizations all reported scaling up support in Haiti for critical shelter, water, sanitation and food assistance.
On Wednesday, Haiti postponed its scheduled rerun of the presidential elections that had been set for Sunday. No new date has been set.
Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.