JÉRÉMIE, Haiti — The roads were lined with Gordian knots of massive uprooted trees, twisted, severed palms, torn corrugated roof parts, crushed rural dwellings, schools, local shops. Mile after mile the scenery repeated itself; the devastation growing with an eerie intensity. Leafless trees and palms had turned black, as if scorched by the storm, and stood like frozen, shaven sentinels in a sea of flooded fields for as far as the eye could see. Destruction was everywhere.
A three-day trip through Haiti’s hardest hit southern peninsula revealed the still-unimaginable scale of suffering Hurricane Matthew left behind, and the long-term catastrophic impact the tempest will have on this Caribbean island. More than 1,000 people are believed to have died. Fears are growing of a cholera epidemic. And despite some long-delayed aid deliveries, hopes for the future are fading.
The colossal storm had hovered slowly, it seemed almost maliciously, over this agriculturally rich region, destroying everything in its path with an especially punishing blow to the region of Grand’Anse, Haiti’s breadbasket on the northern coast of the peninsula. Its final coup de grace: destroying the bridge over the Momance River, effectively severing the peninsula from the capital of Port au Prince and the rest of the country.
“It’s like a state of war,” said Hilaire Delence, a 28-year-old customs worker in the farming town of Torbeck on the south coast of the peninsula. Residents were desperate for any kind of help—water, food, medical supplies, shelters, anything. “The people cleared the streets themselves,” he said. “Every tree fell.” His family was one of the few that had several plots of crops and some cattle after decades of hard work.
“We’ve lost everything,” he said, walking through the rotten remains of their manioc field. “We were the only house left standing because we have cement walls. All the other houses in the community were destroyed. Our home became the only shelter as people ran from the fierceness of the storm towards the fields.”
Both of Delence’s parents stood on the porch, visibly shaken. “It started in the afternoon, on Monday and continued until Wednesday,” said Anne Marie Laurette Laurent, his demure 70-year-old mother, her voice quivering. “We huddled for three days here, we couldn’t move, we were shaking with fear. We just held on to each other. When we came out, we could not believe what we saw.” Delence said she had fainted.
His parents had farmed here for 60 years. “It will take five to 10 years to rebuild the coconut trees. Maybe 50 years for the big trees,” said Rosulme Gabriel Delence, his 68-year-old father, a proud Haitian farmer whose fixed stare betrayed the trauma he wished to hide.
The big trees bear the fruit called lamveritab in Creole and even âme véritable, meaning “true soul,” in French—the breadfruit that is prized by farmers for its multiple uses and the revenue it brings in.
“We [in the town] lost all our shops, too,” said Rosulme. “The books are gone. It’s the beginning of the school year. We owe credit for our loans. Now we have nothing, nothing.”
“I didn’t believe I would survive,” she said. “But I’ve lost all my resistance. There’s no hope to rebuild what we worked hard for.” Those who had sought refuge in the Delence house chimed in. A woman in the small crowd that had gathered around the porch cried, “All we have left to do is die.”
On Torbeck’s debris-laden main streets, young men had set up roadblocks in futile protest at the lack of help.
“No one, no one has come! Not the government people, not the international aid. We’re desperate,” said Don Duerviliyouyou, a young teacher. “This community is entirely dependent on agriculture and livestock, because there are no institutions, so no jobs. The only support we get is from the [Haitian] diaspora and that too is going to stop because of government corruption.” He had just summarized the situation of some 80 percent of Haiti’s poor. He paused and said gravely, “There’s going to be famine here.”
Down the road, heavily clad cops from Haiti’s Corps d’Intervention et de Maintien de l’Ordre (CIMO) security forces chased other protesters, firing tear gas in all directions. The protesters were outside the Haitian-Taiwan Cooperation plant. Inside, local mayor Guidile Joseph was meeting with the plant managers about getting help for the community. Asked about why no officials from the government’s Civil Protection had come to Torbeck, she raised her voice: “Me too, I am angry like the protesters. We don’t have a government. We have the will but no one is hearing us.”
Joseph described the magnitude of crop losses—manioc, rice, corn, pit mil (made into a type of cornmeal), peas, and many banana plantations.
“The loss is devastating, not just for us, but for the whole country,” she said. “No one has come to help. We have not seen a single delegation from anywhere. We need the international help.”
The same macabre landscape of devastation lined the 86-kilometer road to Jérémie. Haiti’s most vulnerable, its poorest, were putting out mattresses to dry, using the overturned palm trees as laundry lines were every rescued piece of clothing hung. Others were trying to save the trunks that were not completely destroyed to burn charcoal for cooking, one of the main reasons for Haiti’s massive deforestation.
There was not a dwelling standing. And no convoys of aid. At Camp Perrin, midway to Jérémie, 300 families huddled inside a rudimentary building that served as school and library in this mountain village. A man waived frantically at our car.
Fortil Wisman, referred to himself as the community representative, but is a lawyer by profession. “No one has come, you are the first person I’m describing the conditions to.”
They, too, had no food, no water, just a large tin bowl of beans. “We’ve been forgotten, no local official has inquired or come,” said Wisman. “This is an area that is home to nearly 100,000 poor Haitians.” A major downpour began. Wisman noticed the uprooted trees. “We have no shade to protect us from the harsh sun, but when it rains, there’s no protection for all the sans-abris, the homeless, everywhere. People are getting sick and there’s no medical help.”
Grand’Anse, the northern province of the peninsula, one of the largest agricultural regions in the country, had been cut off from all communications. Haiti’s two main cellular service providers had been severely damaged by the storm. No news had come out of Jérémie, its capital and second port, also known as historical and cultural center.
The picturesque town, known for its gingerbread-style houses, and for its poets, has a prized tourist destination. It looked like a sea of pulverized wreckage stretching from the coast to its hilltops. The cathedral’s recently restored roof had been torn off, as were the roofs of most of the houses that lined its streets.
Juliette Nicolas sat on the porch of her Aubergine Inn. Soaked checkbooks, Xeroxed house plans, and a printer were on the table, piles of documents dried in the driveway, sheets and mattresses lined the roofless second floor. The fierce winds and rains had engulfed the inn, drenching every inch, including valuable historical documents.
“Jérémie is gone. It’s totally destroyed,” said Nicolas, a native of this town she’s been helping to support for years. She trained as an architect, and spoke of the irony of a meeting set up by the United Nations the week before Hurricane Matthew about managing urban risks in the aftermath of the horrendous 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people. “The main goal was to force a national plan for communal structural assessments and make that a law,” said Nicolas. “That way one would know where to put an airport. In Jérémie, our airport is on a fault line—but where do you put it?"
In Jérémie's famed square, where the damaged cathedral stood, a man walking by stopped to say to us, to anyone, to no one, “I’ve lost everything. My wife is sick. My kids can’t go to school. Our house is destroyed. What are we going to do? Die?”
The heat pounded the weary residents on Sunday as they, too, stretched clothing to dry on any surface, including hanging doors or fallen ceiling beams. They cleared debris solemnly. Everyone echoed the same cry of help: “The officials haven’t come, the aid hasn’t come, we are desperate, we have no water, we need Aquatabs to purify the local water.”
U.S. Army helicopters flew overhead ferrying the 16 tons of supplies the U.S. government was able to bring to Haiti last Thursday, once air traffic had resumed. Tired but angered residents looked up, tempers were beginning to flare. The International Organization for Migration was in charge of distributing the supplies from the staging area at the small airport. But nothing had been delivered. On Monday morning, the first convoy of OIM’s huge trucks rolled in, barely passing through Jérémie's narrow streets.
The long-term consequences of Hurricane Matthew’s destructive path was lost on no one. Even before the storm, 90 percent of Haiti had been deforested and was essentially barren land. More than 35 percent of its agricultural production came from this southern peninsula. The situation is infinitely worse than the impact of the storm felt in the United States. Here, it is not about getting a battered population back to normal. For many, that will never happen, and there is no real hope left.
In Port au Prince, the government promised that a wooden pontoon bridge would be temporarily placed over the Momance River. A Haitian presidential candidate said, even more boldly, that a permanent bridge would be up within days. But such assurances have been drowned in what is still the muddy and treacherous crossing.