LES CAYES, Haiti — As Hurricane Matthew roared across southwestern Haiti, Joselien Jean-Baptiste huddled with his family while the wind whipped at his little house. When it was finally safe to venture outside at dawn the 60-year-old farmer realized his troubles had only just begun.
The storm knocked down part of the house where he lives with his wife and six children outside of Les Cayes, leaving only a small section of corrugated metal still intact. But that was the least of his problems. The field he had worked for 25 years was a scene of violent upheaval. His rice was swamped with river water; the mango and breadfruit trees were split like matchsticks; his corn flattened or torn from the ground by fierce winds.
“It is going to take us a long, long time to get back on our feet,” Jean-Baptiste said.
Haitian and international agricultural officials say it could be a decade or more before the southwestern peninsula recovers economically from Hurricane Matthew, which struck hard at the rugged region of more than 1 million people that is almost completely dependent on farming and fishing.
The Civil Protection agency said Friday that the death toll from Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall here on Oct. 4, had risen to 546, though it was likely to climb higher as reports continued to trickle in from remote areas. Likewise, the statistics about economic losses are still approximate, but appear to be catastrophic.
In the Grand-Anse region, nearly 100 percent of crops and 50 percent of livestock were destroyed, according to the World Food Program. On the outskirts of Les Cayes, where Jean-Baptiste lives, more than 90 percent of crops were lost and the fishing industry was “paralyzed” as material and equipment washed away, the organization said.
Re-planting vegetable crops can be done relatively quickly and rice fields begin to recover as floodwaters recede, but the loss of mature fruit trees that families nurtured for a generation is a staggering blow. “It will take at least 10 years for nature to do what it needs to do to grow the trees back,” said Elancie Moise, an agronomist and senior agriculture ministry official in the south.
Grapefruit, banana and avocado trees were wiped out along with important root crops such as yams, which were inundated with water or damaged by the whipping wind, Moise said. Vetiver, a grass that is used to produce fragrances and is an important export for Haiti, appears to have sustained some root damage but may be one of the few crops to make it, he added.
There are widespread reports of rising prices in the outdoor markets that line the region’s rural roads and of people struggling to find food. “Already there are some people, if you ask them what they ate for dinner last night, they won’t be able to answer you,” Moise said.
This is a region that only recently began recovering from a drought that had decreased crop production by half. Now, farmers like Jean-Baptiste are wading through the ankle-deep water in their rice fields desperately searching for stalks that may have survived and can still be sold. Many have nothing to salvage. Trees such as bread fruit and coconut palms can’t even be sold for charcoal because the wood isn’t suitable. People are also trying to save what fruit they can, but most wasn’t yet ripe.
“It took a long time for these trees to get strong and now all my coffee has been lost. Our plantains and vegetables, everything is gone,” said Rico Lifete, who works a small plot in the craggy mountains outside the coastal city of Jeremie and managed to save his dozen chickens by keeping them inside his stone-and-stucco shack with his family.
Haiti as a whole is largely deforested, with an estimated 2 percent of its original forest cover left because of decades of misuse of the land and the cutting of trees to make charcoal for cooking. But this western peninsula that juts out along the Caribbean Sea had been comparatively lush. It includes the cloud-shrouded mountains of Pic Macaya National Park, which was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2016. Until Hurricane Matthew, the narrow roads along the coast were shaded by soaring rows of palms.
Now, it looks like the whole place has been put through a blender. The palms, those that haven’t crashed through the roofs of houses and churches, look like they were given a bad haircut, crudely hacked away at the top. The breadfruit and mango trees behind the home of Oscar Corentin, in a village west of Les Cayes, were a tangle of fallen limbs and bare branches.
Corentin and his extended family inherited this piece of land from his mother, and the trees were there when he was born. Asked how old he is, the wiry, bare-chested farmer, who looks to be in his 60s, dismissively waves a machete, saying “I’ve lost count.” His younger cousin says she is 64. The fruit sustained dozens of people, including his seven grandchildren and her 12. “I lost everything,” he said. “Please show the world what is going on.”
The effects are being felt not only by the farmers who rely on their marginal farmland to eke out a living, but also in the street markets far from the worst-hit districts. Farmers such as Celeo Marcelin have been combing through their remaining crops trying to find anything to salvage for sale, and not finding much. “There’s nothing left,” he said.
International aid groups say the widespread crop damage will require an influx of seed packs for replanting once the immediate needs of emergency water, food and medicine are met.
“We are aware that it will be more effective to distribute seeds to farmers timed with their next planting season, in early 2017, ideally with fertilizer or compost to help replenish the soil which has been flooded in saltwater,” said Jean-Claude Fignole, a senior Oxfam official in Haiti.
A “flash appeal” for Haiti issued by the U.N. humanitarian agency in Geneva was not getting anywhere near the level of support officials are seeking, with only about 5 percent pledged so far of the $120 million requested. The lack of immediate help has caused frustration, with some people in the village where Jean-Baptiste lives just east of Les Cayes trying to force an aid truck to stop and clashing with peacekeepers on a recent afternoon.
“Everything is gone here,” he said, “people are going to just leave.”