GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (CN) – U.S. Marines began shuttling urgently-needed relief supplies to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti on Sunday, a top Navy commander said.
The death toll in the wake of the powerful storm has now surpassed 1,000, according to a tally from local officials compiled by Reuters. The official government count stands at 336.
The Caribbean’s most powerful storm in a decade pummeled Haiti a week ago, delivering winds of up to 145 mph. In its wake, it left nearly 1.5 million Haitians in urgent need of relief assistance and impacted nearly 20 percent of the entire population, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
To assist with relief efforts, the U.S. has deployed 12 helicopters to help deliver international relief supplies being flown in to the island, Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern command, said at a news conference during a brief visit to the naval base.
The U.S. helicopters are being used to access parts of Haiti that were cut off by washed out bridges and mudslides, he said.
Tidd surveyed the storm ravaged island by air on Sunday, flying from Port-au-Prince to the hardest hit areas on the southwestern part of the island.
He described seeing difficult, rugged terrain and “devastation,” including downed trees and ravaged crops and livestock. These observations are similar to those offered by the UN World Food Programme.
“Preliminary results from our emergency food security assessments show that nearly 100 percent of the crops in the Grand’Anse department around the town of Jeremie have been destroyed. In other areas it varies between 50 and 80 percent of crop loss,” said Alexis Masciarelli, spokesperson for UN World Food Programme, in an email from Haiti.
People in these areas have relied on the generosity of family and neighbors since the hurricane, and gathering fallen coconuts and papaya, Masciarelli added.
“The World Food Programme’s objective is to provide food assistance to 750,000 vulnerable people over the next three months in the most affected areas. In a second phase, we will focus on supporting these people to be self-sufficient again, Masciarelli said.
Tidd described the devastation he saw in Haiti as “heartbreaking.”
“It is really, really difficult. The people on the Western end, for all intents and purposes, have been cut off for the last few days,” he added.
Tidd said discrepancies in fatality numbers stem from the Haitian government’s inability to access some parts of the country. Additionally, it has not visited all parts of the country to which it can gain access.
The U.S. is delivering food, water, blankets and shelter, Tidd said. This effort will be limited in duration until international relief organizations are in place and ready to take over the responsibility, according to Tidd, who said he anticipates a two-week mission for the U.S. role in the humanitarian relief effort.
Meantime, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was “extraordinarily fortunate” to escape major damage, with the storm passing far enough east to avoid major wind damage – only modest repairs are required, Tidd said.
The U.S. Navy evacuated more than 700 family members of U.S. military personnel from the base. Those who remained sheltered in place, along with the law of war detainees held at the detention center, Tidd said.
When asked how the detainees fared during the storm, Tidd responded: “It was, I think, for some of them, I suspect it was a lot stronger storm than what they were expecting, so it was a bit of a challenge, but they sheltered in place under exactly the same conditions that the guard force were sheltered in.”
None of the attorneys for the five accused 9/11 plotters could say Monday how their clients fared during the storm, but James Harrington, who represents Ramzi bin al-Shibh, did say that the vibrations and noises the prisoner and accused 9/11 plotter has complained about for eight years stopped during the storm. However, they returned once the storm passed, Harrington noted.
Tidd said the detainees sheltered in place for 36 hours until the storm passed and things began returning to normal.
According to Tidd, no hurricane-related injuries were reported on the naval base. From Guantanamo, Tidd continued to Trinidad and Tobago to join Defense Secretary Ash Carter for the12th annual Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.
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