CHANTAL, Haiti — As the creek behind Hermosante Fedna’s home overflowed its banks and lapped at her walls, she waited, afraid the hurricane winds outside posed the greater danger.
She and her husband, Tiophal Sintable, had built their home and raised seven children there. He grew rice and cassava in the green coastal fields behind it. She sold them in the market.
But the sounds Monday night were tremendous, like roaring engines. The winds uprooted towering palm trees and hurled them into the cinder-block shacks all around her. Coconuts landed like cannonballs. When the wind shook her walls and the floodwaters reached her knees, her son carried the 85-year-old Fedna to church to wait out the storm.
Haitians all along the southern coast are now reckoning with the extraordinary toll of that night, destruction on a scale none there had ever seen. Along the southern peninsula that was largely spared from the devastating 2010 earthquake, Hurricane Matthew landed a ferocious blow, damaging or smashing thousands of homes, schools and churches, razing trees and crops, and sweeping away farm animals.
Fedna’s house was flattened. Her husband, who fled to a different building, died when the ceiling crashed down, pinning him under the wreckage with a flashlight in his hand.
“This is the worst thing to ever happen to our town,” Fedna said Friday, tears glistening on her cheeks.
Hurricane Matthew has killed at least 300 people in Haiti, according to the national government, but the figure was sure to rise as aid teams reached areas cut off by washed-out bridges or fallen trees. A Reuters tally from local and national officials put the death count at more than 800. The town of Chantal and its surroundings are among the worst hit, with 106 confirmed dead.
U.N. officials have called the hurricane the country’s worst humanitarian crisis since the 2010 earthquake, which killed about 200,000 people.
Residents said people died after being struck by falling trees or collapsing roofs. Others disappeared in the floodwaters.
“This is killing us,” said Fedna, weeping quietly. “There is nothing left to live on. Our trees and our crops are gone.”
The United Nations reported that more than 350,000 of the 1.5 million people living in the area affected by the storm need assistance. Aid agencies fear that cholera — a deadly disease spread by contaminated water — could also decimate vulnerable populations. Already, new cases are being reported at local clinics.
Four days after the hurricane slammed into the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation with winds reaching 145 mph, thousands of Haitians remained without power, communications or clean water. The powerful storm continued its destructive march through the Caribbean and hammered Florida on Friday.
In Jeremie, the hard-hit capital of the Grand’Anse department at the western end of Haiti’s southern peninsula, 80 percent of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed, said Holly Frew, a spokeswoman for the aid group CARE. The western area “is pretty much still cut off,” and many communities are accessible only by motorbike, she said.
“As information begins to come in from the west, we’ll continue to see the death toll rise,” Frew said from Jacmel on the southern coast. “Over in the southwest, it’s utter despair.”
Conor Shapiro, 35, who runs the St. Boniface Hospital in Fond-des-Blancs, said few patients have been able to get to his hospital, the largest on the southern peninsula, because roads are blocked and a key bridge washed out. He said he hoped to see more of an international rescue effort soon.
“Maybe the surge will come,” he said. “But this feels like a forgotten disaster.”
Chantal is on the far side of a damaged bridge over the L’Acul du Sud River — still cut off from main roads in this part of Haiti — and residents now fear for their access to food. Before his house collapsed, Pierre Listene, 37, grabbed small plastic sacks of coffee beans and black beans, which he spread on the ground Friday at a chaotic makeshift market along the riverbank. His livestock — five cows, five pigs and 25 chickens — had been swept away.
“This is all we were able to save,” he said. “There is going to be hunger.”
The scope of the storm damage was difficult to discern in the first couple of days because this peninsula was unreachable by road, and aid groups have only recently begun to explore coastal villages to assess the problems. Some towns are still isolated, and only rumors of destruction have trickled out. Power was still out along the coast, and phone service was sporadic. Health-care workers expressed worry that hospitals had insufficient supplies to deal with the injuries or disease that could follow the storm.
Along this part of the coast, most houses appear to have suffered some damage from wind, flooding or falling trees.
Gisette Maurice, 62, began building a two-bedroom home outside the nearby city of Les Cayes after her husband died nine years ago. She farmed rice to scrape a meager living and to buy the concrete blocks and metal sheeting for the roof. Maurice finally moved in this past December. She shares the humble home with 19 other relatives.
The hurricane ripped off her roof, submerged the television and refrigerator, washed away her children’s and grandchildren’s birth certificates, and made her eight-year achievement uninhabitable.
“I’ve lost my appetite; I can’t eat,” she said. “I just keep thinking about what I have to do to rebuild this.”
“The kids are still in school,” she went on. Then she started to cry.
Maurice and her family are now sleeping with neighbors. The government estimates that about 35,000 Haitians are in shelters across the south. Residents are struggling to dry out from the deluge. Up and down the roads Friday, people were hanging their clothes to dry on fallen tree branches, on downed power lines, on gravestones and on the ground. Women dragged soaked furniture and mattresses out into the sun. Men fired up chain saws to cut through downed trees that blocked the roads.
Denise Louis, 40, did not need to move anything outside to dry; the sun now poured right into her home. Only one wall still stood after the storm, exposing all her belongings to the passing cars.
“I’ve seen flooding, but never something like this,” she said.
Louis, who sells cosmetics in the local market, fled with her two sons when her walls rattled violently, running to a neighbor’s house on higher ground. She returned to no home at all. Muddy clothes, shoes, scraps of homework assignments and a soggy mattress were all jumbled on the floor and strewn in the yard. The front door was propped sideways on the ground.
With a $400 debt outstanding at the bank, and her cosmetics lost in the flood, Louis had no idea what would come next.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said.
Brian Murphy and William Branigin in Washington and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.