LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) — Haitian officials on Thursday dramatically raised the known death toll from Hurricane Matthew as they finally began to reach corners of the country that had been cut off by the rampaging storm.
Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph announced that at least 108 had died, up from a previous count of 23. That raised the hurricane’s overall toll across the Caribbean to 114.
Officials were especially concerned about the department of Grand-Anse, located on the northern tip of the peninsula that was slammed by the Category 4 storm, which severed roads and communications links.
“(It) got hit extremely hard,” said Guillaume Albert Moleon, Interior Ministry spokesman.
Officials with the Civil Protection Agency said 38 of the known deaths were reported in Grand-Anse.
People in the region’s devastated main city, Jeremie, faced an immediate hunger crisis, said Maarten Boute, chairman of telecom Digicel Haiti, who flew to the city in a helicopter.
Matthew mashed concrete walls and tore away rooftops, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee for their lives.
In the southwest seaport of Les Cayes, many were searching for clean water on Thursday as they lugged mattresses and other scant belongings they were able to salvage.
“Nothing is going well,” Jardine Laguerre, a teacher, told The Associated Press. “The water took what little money we had. We are hungry.”
Authorities and aid workers were just beginning to get a clear picture of what they fear is the country’s biggest disaster in years.
Joseph, the interior minister, said food and water were urgently needed, noting that crops have been leveled, wells inundated by seawater and some water treatment facilities destroyed.
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.
So far there were no reports of casualties from better-equipped Cuba or the Bahamas, which was being raked by the hurricane on Thursday.
In Haiti’s southern peninsula towns, where Matthew hit around daybreak Tuesday with 145 mph (235 kph) winds, there was wreckage and misery everywhere.
“The floodwater took all the food we have in the house. Now we are starving and don’t have anything to cook,” said farmer Antoine Louis as he stood in brown water up to his thighs in the doorway of his deluged concrete shack.
In Aquin, a coastal town outside Les Cayes, people trudged through mud around the wreckage of clapboard houses and tiny shops.
Cenita Leconte was one of many who initially ignored calls to evacuate vulnerable shacks before Matthew roared ashore. The 75-year-old was thankful she finally complied and made it through the terrifying ordeal with her life.
“We’ve lost everything we own. But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died,” she told the AP as neighbors poked through wreckage hoping to find at least some of their meager possessions.
Civil aviation authorities reported counting 3,214 destroyed homes along the southern peninsula, where many families live in shacks with sheet metal roofs and don’t always have the resources to escape harm’s way.
The government has estimated at least 350,000 people need some kind of assistance after the disaster, which U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Haiti Mourad Wahba has called the country’s worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating earthquake of 2010.
International aid groups are already appealing for donations for a lengthy recovery effort in Haiti, the hemisphere’s least developed and most aid-dependent nation.
In coming days, U.S. military personnel equipped with nine helicopters were expected to start arriving to help deliver food and water to hard-hit areas.
When Category 4 Hurricane Flora hit in 1963, it killed as many as 8,000 people.
As recovery efforts in Haiti continued, Matthew pummeled the Bahamian capital of Nassau on Thursday with winds of 140 mph (220 kph).
The head of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Authority, Capt. Stephen Russell, told the AP there were many downed trees and power lines, but no reports of casualties.
Authorities shut down the power grid to protect it against the winds.
In nearby Cuba, Matthew blew across that island’s sparsely populated eastern tip, destroying dozens of homes and damaging hundreds in the island’s easternmost city, Baracoa. But the government oversaw the evacuation of nearly 380,000 people and strong measures were taken to protect communities and infrastructure, U.N. officials said.
Matthew was on a path forecast to take it close to the U.S. East Coast, where authorities ordered large-scale evacuations. Matthew had dropped slightly to a Category 3 storm after crossing land in Haiti and eastern Cuba, but strengthened once again to a Category 4, officials said.
It was located about 125 miles (205 kilometers) east-southeast of West Palm Beach in Florida and was moving northwest at 14 mph (22 kph) at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT).