Hurricane Matthew left a broad swath of destruction across Haiti on Wednesday with flooding, rivers of mud that washed out a crucial bridge into the southwestern peninsula of the country and thousands seeking shelter.
Eleven people died across the Caribbean, including five in Haiti, said Haiti Ambassador Paul Altidor. There were initial reports of more than 10,000 living in shelters.
The ambassador said the government is confident the number of dead will “remain quite low.” “There was a strong motivation to keep people away from the dangerous areas,” Altidor said.
He said the government had enough advance warning to begin to move people away from dangerous, flooding areas and he believes that this saved lives.
“It’s been decades since the Caribbean has seen a hurricane of this magnitude, the heavy downpour. This is something that has not been seen in a long, long time. It is a major, major disaster.”
But Altidor said it is nowhere near the level of disaster Haiti endured in the 2010 earthquake where 200,000 died.
A United Nations representative to Haiti, Mourad Wahba, agreed the country was facing its largest humanitarian crisis since an earthquake in 2010 that left tens of thousands living in tents and makeshift dwellings. Some 55,000 Haitians left homeless by that earthquake were still living in shelters when Hurricane Matthew struck. Wahba said hospitals were jammed with people and running out of clean water.
The U.N. estimated that 2.3 million people are living in areas impacted by the hurricane. That population includes an estimated 17,000 pregnant women expected to give birth within the next three months, said Marielle Sander, a representative of UNFPA, that deals with population health issues.
On Wednesday, a U.S. Southern Command-directed team began deploying to Port-au-Prince to provide humanitarian and disaster relief assistance. The team, under direction of the U.S. Agency for International Development, set up a command center at the airport in the capital.
"Haiti is such a fragile country. Even the slightest rainfall can cause more damage than it can elsewhere," Sander said.
Meanwhile, Haitian officials Wednesday postponed the presidential election scheduled for Sunday due to Matthew's damage, the Associated Press reported.
President Obama asked Americans to be mindful of the fate of such a poor nation stricken by such a massive storm. "We anticipate that they're going to need substantial help," he said Wednesday.
Hurricane Matthew lashed Cuba and Haiti with winds up to 140 mph Tuesday. There were no initial reports of deaths in Cuba. The city of Baracoa, near the southeastern tip of Cuba, suffered extensive damage from storm surge and high winds. Four people were reported killed in the Dominican Republic.
A key bridge in Petit Goave linking Haiti with much of its southwestern population was washed out by the storm. Isolated areas of the country were inundated with up to 40 inches of water, and there were storm surges of 10 feet or more along the coastline.
"Our assessments show thousands of houses destroyed or damaged," said John Hasse, national director of the humanitarian organization World Vision. "In the remote areas, we're hearing reports of communities that have been destroyed, but (we) haven't been able to get access to those areas yet to see full extent of the damage."
With communication cut off to large areas of the country, it was difficult Wednesday to learn the full extent of damage from the hurricane.
A U.N. spokesperson in Haiti, Ariane Quentier, said the most immediate need was learning information about the populated, agricultural area beyond the washed-out bridge in the southwest. With the road and communication cut to that region, rescue personnel were trying to reach people by helicopter to learn more about the damage.
"We need to be able to assess this situation to be able to see how to respond," Quentier said.
The U.S. Marines were sending 300 personnel with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to deploy to Haiti aboard the amphibious ship USS Mesa Verde, according to the Washington Post.
Fidele Nicolas, a civil protection official in Nippes, Haiti, told AP "it's the worst hurricane that I've seen during my life. It destroyed schools, roads and other structures."