EXTREME WEATHER

Hurricane Matthew death toll spikes to 339 in Haiti after ‘several dozen’ killed in coastal town

Storm could rake past Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas this weekend; tens of thousands flee

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 October, 2016, 2:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2016, 11:48am

Hurricane Matthew has killed at least 339 people in Haiti, including dozens in one coastal town that authorities and rescue workers were only beginning to reach days after the storm, officials said on Thursday.

The Interior Ministry, a mayor and other local officials confirmed the numbers across Haiti, with many victims killed by falling trees, flying debris and swollen rivers when Matthew hit with 230km/h winds on Tuesday.

I’ve never seen anything like this
Louis Paul Raphael, Haiti government spokesman

Most of the fatalities were in towns and fishing villages around the western end of Tiburon peninsula in the country’s southwest, one of Haiti’s most picturesque regions. The storm passed directly through the peninsula, driving the sea inland and flattening homes on Monday and Tuesday.

“Several dozen” died in the coastal town of Les Anglais in Sud Department, said Louis Paul Raphael, the central government’s representative in the region.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Raphael.

Les Anglais was the first to be hit by Matthew and has been out of contact since then. Just before the storm hit, the mayor said people were fleeing their houses in panic as the sea surged into town.

A few miles south in Port-a-Piment village Mayor Jean-Raymond Pierre-Louis said 25 people died. Further south still, in the village of Roche-a-Bateau, 24 died. In Grand Anse Department, also on the storm’s destructive path but on the other side of the peninsula, 38 more lost their lives.

In one public hospital in Les Cayes, a port town on the Tiburon peninsula, most doctors had not shown up to work since they took shelter as the storm hit. Food and water was scarce in shelters.

The devastation in Haiti prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election scheduled for Sunday.

As Matthew blew through the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast, it became an “extremely dangerous” hurricane carrying winds of 220km/h, the US National Hurricane Centre said.

That made it a Category 4 hurricane and it was likely to remain so as it approached the United States, where it could either take direct aim at Florida or brush along the state’s coast through Friday night, the centre said.

Death toll rises to 26 as Hurricane Matthew barrels toward southern US after leaving trail of destruction in Haiti and Cuba

As the storm passed about 40km from the Bahamas capital of Nassau, howling gusts of wind brought down palms and other trees and flipped shingles off the rooftops of many houses.

Bahamas Power and Light disconnected much of Nassau as Matthew bore down on the town.

No structural damage was immediately visible, a Reuters witness said, and rain was fairly light. No fatalities were reported.

It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most of its damage in the United States but the National Hurricane Centre’s hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.

Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached with not just high winds but strong storm surges and drenching rain.

Florida Governor Rick Scott warned there could be “catastrophic” damage if Matthew slammed directly into the state, and urged some 1.5 million people there to heed evacuation orders.

“If you’re reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people who have been killed,” Scott said at a news conference on Thursday. “Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we’re going to have hurricane-force winds.”

Scott, who activated several thousand National Guard troops to help deal with the storm, warned that millions of people were likely to be left without power.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said.

Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and stockpiling supplies. Those declared states of emergency, a move empowering their governors to mobilise the National Guard.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest encouraged residents in the path of the storm to heed warnings from local governments about evacuations and seeking shelter.

Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in and out of the Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, industry website Flightaware.com said.

Matthew was forecast to pass close to Freeport, on Grand Bahama, the most industrialised part of Bahamas. On Tuesday and Wednesday Matthew whipped Cuba and Haiti with 225km/h winds and torrential rain, pummelling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes.

The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 177km/h, to hit the United States was Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the same year Katrina struck New Orleans.

In Florida, fuel stations posted “out of gas” signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up. At a Subco gas station in Orlando, the central Florida city that is home to resorts including Walt Disney World, the gas pumps had run dry on Wednesday afternoon.

The shop was a stopping off point for coastal residents seeking shelter inland from the coast. Among them was Jonas Sylvan, 44, of Melbourne, Florida, who planned to hole up in a hotel with his wife, two daughters and dog.

“We’re just trying to get away from the coast,” he said. “It’s safer here.”

Bumper-to-bumper traffic extended for more than 16km on the main highway leading west to Orlando from the coast.

In the central Florida coastal city of Jupiter, people scrambled to make preparations.

“Our house is wood construction, so who knows what will happen,” said Libby Valentine, 75, of Jupiter. “The whole idea is to stay safe and hope you have the grace to deal with the aftermath because you might not have a house.”

Most stores were closed or planning to do so soon. A line of two dozen cars snaked out of a Marathon gas station and tied up traffic on a nearby road. Next door, the windows of a Sabor Latino Supermarket were covered with plywood and a hand-written sign said it closed at noon. Still people banged on the door, hoping to make last-minute purchases.

“What am I going to do now?” said Manuel Fernandez, 67, a construction worker who said he spent the last two days clearing all of the supplies out of the job site where he works. “Publix is closed, Walmart, now here, there’s no place left.”