A close-up look at southwestern Haiti, post-hurricane Matthew


Figure 5. The remains of a school destroyed by wave runup near Coteau. Photo Credit: A. Kennedy.

By Andrew Kennedy & Tracy Kijewski-Correa , Weather Underground, Dec. 16, 2016

This post is by Dr. Andrew Kennedy and Dr. Tracy Kijewski-Correa, associate professors in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. From November 17 to 25, a reconnaissance team led by Kijewski-Correa visited the most-affected regions and evaluated Matthew’s effects on buildings, infrastructure, and the people of Haiti. Below, Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Kijewski-Correa give us a preliminary account of their trip, which took them to areas seen by relatively few outside observers since the hurricane. 

On October 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall near the town of Les Anglais, Haiti, as a strong Category 4 storm with estimated sustained winds of 145 mph (65 m/s) (Fig. 1). The landfall region in the western Tiburon Peninsula, more than 150 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, sustained extreme damage to buildings and vegetation. The Haitian government reported 546 fatalities from Matthew, while other sources reported at least 1600 unconfirmed deaths. Rainfall in the peninsula was extreme, estimated by NASA to be 10-20 inches over the course of the storm.

Some background
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a per-capita GDP of US$846 in 2014. Haiti has many poor people, a few very wealthy families, and a small, weak middle class. Even in the best of times, life is difficult here for most citizens, and these are not the best of times. Except for a few paved national roads that link large cities, many roads are unpaved and often impassable, intercepted by land/rock slides and rivers, and eroded by flash flooding. Four-wheel drive vehicles are necessary in many areas.

Haiti has a largely agricultural economy, historically focused on producing coffee and sugarcane but more recently on exporting oils used in perfumes, bananas, and cocoa. A large portion of the population, particularly in rural areas, survives on subsistence farming, so any interruption to agriculture has immediate impacts on nutrition. Overall, Haiti has little internal resilience to natural disasters and relies on outside aid not just for recovery, but for many of the basic services its citizens require.

Haiti is still recovering from a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010 that killed at least 100,000 people, and perhaps several hundred thousand, in the general region of Port-au-Prince. Fortunately, areas affected by the 2010 Earthquake and Hurricane Matthew had relatively little overlap. All three major hurricane hazards played a significant role in Haiti during Hurricane Matthew: wind, waves/surge, and rainfall/flooding. All areas of the affected regions received strong wind, and most also experienced either saltwater flooding from the ocean, or freshwater flooding from rainfall.

Wind-related storm effects
Strong winds during Matthew caused severe damage to most buildings employing lightweight roofs. Zinc metal roofs, which are used for most of the housing stock in the affected areas, were almost uniformly destroyed, leaving houses open to the elements (Fig. 2). Unconfined masonry walls, which are very common, were often tensioned by the uplift on the roof, making them easy to topple in the Category 4 winds. It was rare to find a metal-roofed building in the most affected areas that had not suffered significant damage. The best-performing buildings were built of heavy concrete block with concrete slab roofs; however, these types of buildings were deathtraps during the 2010 Earthquake.

All of this might seem to suggest that nothing can be done, but a few examples of good design stand out. Chief among them is a medical clinic in Port Salut, which was built according to modern design standards and suffered only minor loss of metal roof panels while buildings around it were severely degraded by the storm (Fig. 3). The night-and-day difference in performance indicates that it is possible to build safely in these regions, although adoption of safer practices for traditional building methods used in Haiti remains an ongoing challenge, overwhelmingly due to the lack of economic resources.


In addition to building damage, winds uprooted or severely damaged many trees, including valuable coconut palms as well as avocado, breadfruit and mango trees. These will not recover for many years, inflicting not just a severe economic impact to market and export farmers but also eliminating a valuable food source relied on daily for survival by most families in this region. A more immediate concern is the destruction of ground crops such as the root vegetables Haitians call “vive” (life), the loss of bananas and plantains, and the loss of livestock. The staple crops will regrow in months through agricultural aid, but until this time, there is a severe food shortage in some areas that is still not being met. In addition to agricultural crops, the winds blew over many economically-valuable trees, including many fine examples of West Indian mahogany: there do not presently appear to be plans to take these windfalls to market. Opportunistic Haitians are instead planking the trunks into lumber and burning mounds of branches into charcoal – Haiti’s primary fuel source for cooking.

Wave- and surge-related storm effects
In the United States, beachfront regions are generally inhabited by a relatively well-off demographic who have resources to provide some resiliency in the event of a storm. In Haiti, beaches and other coastal areas are often homes for some of the poorest people: they may be fishermen who require daily access to the sea or those forced to low-lying regions as squatters without rights to land. Often, people are reluctant to evacuate in advance of a storm because of concerns about theft. This makes them highly vulnerable to storm surge and waves. Many people who evacuated did so only during the storm after water began to destroy their homes. While many received SMS (text) messages to evacuate, we were told unanimously that these messages never communicated the severity of the storm. Victims explained to us that they had experienced hurricanes before, but always had a home to return to. It was Matthew’s storm surge that took many by surprise.

Waves and storm surge in the Matthew-affected areas reached up to 15 - 25 feet (4.6 - 7.6 meters) above sea level in regions with steep beaches or cliffs (Fig. 4), and 5 - 15 feet (1.5 - 4.6 meters] in areas with more gentle beaches. Based on interviews with local residents, it appears that inundation often took the form of very fast, strong waves similar to those recorded in the Philippines during Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Close to the ocean in the region of strongest inundation, almost all coastal buildings, again largely employing unreinforced masonry, were partially or completely destroyed (Fig. 5). These were often rebuilt into temporary structures from storm debris, salvaged materials, and blue tarp kits distributed by humanitarian agencies. Although exact numbers are still not clear, many thousands of homes and other buildings were completely destroyed by waves and surge, particularly on the southwest coast between Port Salut and Les Anglais. Damage was not as complete, though still significant, on the northern coast.
Effects of rainfall and inland flooding
The Matthew-affected regions of Haiti received heavy rainfall during and after the storm. This did not cause as much structural damage as other hazards, but it degraded roads, damaged the contents of roof-compromised buildings, flooded entire districts in city centers, and hindered recovery efforts. The two largest of the affected cities, Jeremie and Les Cayes, both experienced inland flooding of around three feet in some downtown areas as the steep mountains outside the cities rapidly deposited their water in flatter coastal areas. Levees were overtopped in some coastal rivers, flooding adjacent areas. In the northern city of Jeremie, rainfall continued for weeks after Matthew: according to residents, this post-storm flooding was worse than that experienced during the storm.
The human cost
One may question if a nation this frail and aid-dependent could ever absorb and recover from two consecutive major disasters, even with sustained international involvement. This recovery will ride largely on the shoulders of individual homeowners, as the impacts of Hurricane Matthew, much like the 2010 Earthquake, have been felt most heavily in the residential sector. It has been six years since the earthquake and the housing sector has yet to recover, with many families in Port-au-Prince and Leogane still inhabiting transitory and informal shelters, struggling over issues of land tenure, and lacking access to mortgages to rebuild. Indeed, homes are often overlooked in disaster risk reduction programming and humanitarian recovery efforts. That was the case in the 2010 Earthquake, and it will be the case again in the wake of Matthew. Those that completely lost their homes will join their countrymen in what may be a decade-long recovery of their homestead. Yet unlike those recovering from a “dry” seismic event, there was little to salvage after Matthew. Its victims often had all that they possessed washed out to sea or completely destroyed by the onslaught of heavy rains.

The story of Matthew’s actual disaster will take decades to unfold. In the short term, Matthew maimed the population with flying debris from metal roofs; incubated mold, disease and infection; destroyed sanitation systems; and inundated water supplies, resulting in a spike in cholera outbreaks. In one swoop, Matthew stripped a region of its agricultural assets, bringing not just the complete disruption of livelihoods but also the potential for famine both in the affected area and in major cities reliant on the peninsula's produce. Even the availability of fish and other marine life has been disrupted due to changes in the coastline.

Moreover, because Matthew swept over a large geographic area far removed from the capital and with frail road access, efforts to assess damage and deliver aid have been challenging. Coupling this geographic disconnect with “Haiti fatigue” among charitable donors, lingering distrust from reports of misappropriated earthquake recovery funds, and the Haitian government's role in limiting channels for disaster relief, one simple fact emerges: Matthew’s victims are struggling and will continue to struggle meeting the basic needs of life for some time to come. The tensions that are boiling in major cities like Les Cayes and Jeremie are a palpable sign of the frustration of Matthew’s victims, even though the losses in these cities pale in comparison to the smaller communities even further west.

Undoubtedly, the Haitian people have shown unparalleled resilience and perseverance in the face of extreme historical, political and natural disasters. Some argue they have had more bad luck than any people should bear. The impacts from the 2010 Earthquake and Hurricane Matthew are so severe that they make one wonder when, or even if, this amazingly resilient nation will be able to fully recover.

How you can help
If you wish to aid the recovery in the south of Haiti, please consider donations to one of these worthy charities working directly with populations in the affected regions:
• GoServ Global--please indicate that you would like your donation directed toward recovery in Les Anglais, Haiti
• Free the Kids--see Holiday Giving Catalog for donation options directed at agricultural recovery, food and housing

Andrew Kennedy and Tracy Kijewski-Correa, University of Notre Dame

Posted Dec. 24, 2016