The full scale of the devastation in rural parts of storm-hit Haiti became clear as the death toll soared to nearly 900 three days after Hurricane Matthew levelled huge swaths of the country’s south.
As Matthew threatened the US coast on Saturday, US President Barack Obama urged Americans to mobilise in support of Haiti, where a million people were in need of assistance after the latest disaster to strike the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.
The number of deaths in Haiti surged to at least 877 late on Friday as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm, according to a Reuters tally of death tolls given by officials. Authorities expect the figure to rise even further.
While the capital and biggest city, Port-au-Prince, was largely spared, the south suffered devastation.
Aerial footage from the hardest-hit towns showed a ruined landscape of metal shanties with roofs blown away and downed trees everywhere. Brown mud from overflowing rivers covered the ground.
Herve Fourcand, a senator for the Sud department, which felt the full force of Matthew’s impact, said several localities were still cut off by flooding and mudslides.
A scene of desolation greeted visitors to Jeremie, a town of 30,000 people left inaccessible until Friday.
“Thousands of houses have been destroyed, and there is not enough food and drinking water,” Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from a Jeremie, said.
At one of the town’s poorly equipped medical centres, doctors said they were desperate for help.
“We don’t have anything; no bandages, no penicillin,” Dr Dessous, of the Saint Antoine hospital, told Al Jazeera. We had to sent people home because we couldn’t treat them here.”
But it’s not just the lack of medicine and equipment threatening Jeremie’s hurricane-hit residents – disease is also a major hazard for the people living here.
“One of the biggest fears here is the threat of cholera,” said Al Jazeera’s Bo, citing a cholera epidemic introduced by UN peacekeepers following Haiti’s 2010 devastating earthquake.
“Thousands of people have previously died because of this disease.”
In one ward, at least 12 patients had cholera, five of them children.
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.
Residents of the town were also concerned about their crops, levelled by Matthew’s heavy rain and winds.
“We already didn’t have enough food, now we have lost our crops,” Junot Clerveau told Al Jazeera. “We have lost our trees that give us mangoes and coconuts. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this.”
On the aid effort, Mourad Wahba, of the UN Mission in Haiti, told Al Jazeera: “We would like the Hatian government to be the coordinating authority. We don’t want to repeat the experience of confusion of 2010.”
The Caribbean nation was struck by its strongest earthquake in more than 200 years six years ago, causing a catastrophe and killing more than 220,000 people. Back then, political wrangling stalled reconstruction efforts.
‘Doing our best’
With power lines down in Haiti, people were cut off from the news for days after the storm struck on Tuesday – and had yet to hear that a presidential election due to take place this weekend had been postponed.
Virtually all of Jeremie’s corrugated-iron homes have been destroyed, with only a few concrete buildings left standing.
“It was as if someone had a remote control and just kept turning the wind up higher and higher,” Carmine Luc, a 22-year-old woman, told AFP news agency.
“When the roof of my house blew off, I clung to a wall with my left hand, and with my right I held on with all my strength to my three-year-old child – who was screaming.”
A ship carrying nine containers of food and medical supplies was headed for Dame Marie, further west in Grand’Anse department.
“It’s probably the hardest-hit department and the conditions don’t allow for a helicopter to land there,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph told AFP. “So we’re doing our best to help those affected.”
Convoys were headed to other affected areas by land, sea and air, he said, including two helicopters provided by the US military to transport 50 tonnes of water, food and medicine elsewhere in Grand’Anse.
Further south, Haiti’s third largest town of Les Cayes was also battered, its Sous-Roches district turned from a quiet beachfront neighbourhood to a chaos of mud and shattered trees.
The river level has started to drop, but its waters are still mixed with the storm surge that inundated the beach during the Category 4 hurricane’s hours-long assault on Tuesday.
“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 tree.
Over 10 hours, hurricane-force wind blasts and heavy rain levelled all the crops in the community’s fields, promising lean months ahead even by Haiti’s impoverished standards.
Up to 80 percent of crops have been lost in some areas, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Around one million people are in need of urgent assistance, according to CARE France, a humanitarian group.
“They have nothing left except the clothes on their back,” it said.
As the death toll climbed, pledges of aid flooded in, with the US announcing it was sending a Navy ship, the USS Mesa Verde, whose 300 Marines will add to the 250 personnel and nine helicopters already deployed to Haiti.
France announced it was sending 60 troops, with 32 tonnes of humanitarian supplies and water purification equipment.
Obama also urged Americans to send donations for Haiti’s hurricane victims.
“We know that hundreds of people have lost their lives and that there’s been severe property damage and they’re going to need help rebuilding,” he said.
“Even the smallest contribution can really make a big difference.”
Venezuela, in an economic crisis itself, swiftly sent three loads of relief supplies and food. They included water, medicine, tents, mattresses, blankets and machinery to move rubble, its Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, home to a large Haitian community, said it was time for people to open their hearts to those in need.
“We ask New Yorkers to unite and stand together to support relief efforts,” he said.
Haiti, which sits on a hurricane path, has had its fair share of natural disasters, including 2010’s devastating earthquake that demolished much of the capital.
Some of its needs have been met by international aid.
But the large-scale international aid programmes in place since the quake have also been criticised for failing to build local capacity while spending millions on their own short-term programmes.
So Joseph, the interior minister, insisted that “it’s out of the question for NGOs to take charge of humanitarian aid.
“We are very firm on this point: this country is led by a government. Across the country, it’s civil protection services that are coordinating everything,” he added.
“We are not going to turn this country into a messy chaos. It’s not going to happen. We already experienced that in 2010, we learned from our mistakes, we will act responsibly.”
Many ordinary Haitians are skeptical of help from abroad – in a country whose economic decrepitude is seen as connected to its disastrous post-colonial legacy of foreign intervention and home-grown corruption.
“I’ve never believed in foreign aid,” said Gedeon Dorfeuille, a resident of Les Cayes. “Please, don’t come back promising us billions again if nothing is to come of it.”