Saturday 10 December 2016

Hurricane Matthew weakens off US coast as Haiti death toll soars and cholera fears grow

David McFadden

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

DEVASTATION: A man walks through the ruins of homes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew looking for personal belongings to salvage, in Baracoa, Cuba. Matthew hit Cuba’s eastern tip last Tuesday, damaging hundreds of homes but there were no reports of deaths. Nearly 380,000 people were evacuated. Photo: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
DEVASTATION: A man walks through the ruins of homes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew looking for personal belongings to salvage, in Baracoa, Cuba. Matthew hit Cuba’s eastern tip last Tuesday, damaging hundreds of homes but there were no reports of deaths. Nearly 380,000 people were evacuated. Photo: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A fast-weakening Hurricane Matthew which has been blamed for at least four deaths in the US, all in Florida, continued its march along the Atlantic coast.

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It lashed two of the southern United States's most historic cities and some of its most popular resort islands, flattening trees, swamping streets and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of homes.

The deaths in Florida included an elderly St Lucie County couple who died from carbon monoxide fumes while running a generator in their garage and two women who were killed when trees fell on a home and a camper.

The storm raked the city of St Augustine, Florida, last Friday. The city was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and includes a 17th-century stone fortress and many historic homes turned into bed-and-breakfasts.

St Augustine was left awash in rain and grey seawater.

Police blocked all access to the city early yesterday as power crews repaired lines and downed trees were cut up.

Matthew - the most powerful hurricane to threaten the Atlantic seaboard in more than a decade - set off alarms as it closed in on the US, triggering evacuation orders covering two million people.

The storm also left at least 470 dead in Haiti in one hard-hit district alone, with other stricken areas still unreachable five days after the disaster struck, killing almost 900.

Matthew raked Georgia and South Carolina with torrential rain and stiff winds, and - for the first time in its run-up the US coastline - its storm centre blew ashore. It made landfall near McClellanville, South Carolina, where it caused serious flooding.

Up until then, the centre, or eye, stayed just far enough out at sea for coastal communities not to feel the full force of Matthew's winds.

The reaction was relief that things were nowhere near as bad as many feared as the storm passed one city after another.

"We are all blessed that Matthew stayed off our coast," Florida governor Rick Scott said. "We are blessed that we didn't have a direct hit."

Matthew was just barely a hurricane at 11am local time, with winds of 120kmh, a drop-off from 230kmh when the storm roared into Haiti.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, were among the cities bracing themselves for later in the day. From there, the storm was expected to veer out to sea and loop back around toward the Bahamas in a much-weakened state.

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory warned people not to let their guard down just because Matthew was losing steam.

Georgia, a historic town of moss-draped squares and antebellum mansions in Savannah, saw floodwaters several feet deep submerge a long stretch of President Street, which links to the highway to Georgia's Tybee Island.

A shivering woman was seen staggering through waters up to her neck to the water's edge. A bystander handed her a sheet which she wrapped around her neck. "I'm homeless," said the woman, who called herself Valerie. "I've got nine kids, but I couldn't evacuate with them."

Matthew also brought some of the highest tides on record along the South Carolina coast. Streets in Charleston - a city of handsome pre-Civil War homes, church steeples and romantic carriage rides - were flooded. South Carolina's golf-and-tennis resort, Hilton Head Island, also took a blow as the eye of the storm passed 30km to the east with one gust of 140kmh recorded there.

Fallen pine trees blocked the two roads on to the island of 40,000 people, and many roads were under water. Signs were blown over and power was out across the island.

Meanwhile, at least 470 people have died in one district of Haiti's hard-hit southwest region as authorities slowly reach marooned areas devastated by Matthew.

Fridnel Kedler, coordinator for the Civil Protection Agency in Grand-Anse, said that officials still have not been able to reach two communities in that department three days after the Category 4 storm hit. "The death toll is sure to go up," he said.

Officials are especially concerned about Grand-Anse, located on the northern tip of the southwest peninsula, where they believe the death toll and damage is highest. When Category 4 Hurricane Flora hit Haiti in 1963, it killed 8,000 people.

The government has estimated at least 350,000 people need some kind of assistance in what is likely to be the country's worst humanitarian crisis since a devastating earthquake in January 2010.

The Pan American Health Organisation also warned of a surge in cholera cases because of the widespread flooding caused by Matthew. Haiti's cholera outbreak has killed 10,000 people and sickened 800,000 since 2010, when it was introduced into the country's biggest river from a UN base where Nepalese peacekeepers were deployed.

UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien called the hurricane's damage a major blow to Haiti's reconstruction effort and the fight against cholera.

"We expect that homes, schools and cholera treatment facilities have been destroyed," he said in a statement that also announced that the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund was releasing €4m to help Haiti. Earlier this week, the fund released a €7m loan to Unicef to scale up response to the cholera epidemic.

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