Hurricane Matthew Update | “We have never gone through such an ordeal”

Ailish O’Reilly is Haven’s Programmes Manager in Haiti.  She was on the island of Île à Vache off the south coast of Haiti when Hurricane Matthew hit this week.  Here, she tells us of the experience and of the devastation caused to the community.


Here we were all excited about our Enterprise Trip in September.  There was a party and festival on the Christine Farm in Cavaillon with the visiting group.  We had an exhibition day at Chache Lavi with a sample of our new businesses.  We visited the Housing Upgrade programme and discussed the water harvesting and sanitation programmes.  The sewing ladies on the island had their designs on display in the sewing centre.  The fishermen gave us a tour of their village to visit the boat-building project.  Our communities were really excited as the Enterprise Trip brought all the projects together in a few days, and there was a real sense of achievement and moving forward.

But on Monday 3rd October, we had the biggest visitor to hit Haiti and Île à Vache in over 50 years: Hurricane Matthew arrived in a Category 5 fury.  We have never in our lives gone through such an 18 hour ordeal.

It started with the warnings and the usual preparations: would it hit us; would it veer off; what strength was it?  Late on Sunday, we heard that Île à Vache was in its path.  It veered once a bit west, but came right smack bang down on us again.

On Monday morning, the Haven team was out informing the villages of Madame Bernard and neighbouring Grand Sab to encourage people to evacuate.  Both communities lie at sea level and already the water was rising.  People were not ready or prepared for evacuation.

Well before 3pm, we were all back in our houses, stocked up and ready to wait it out.  The wind started to rise and I thought, okay, this is it coming.  The solar power went around 4pm and it was over to the Klere’m solar kits to keep the phones charged. By 4.45 pm, Damien, Haven’s Fundraising and Development Officer also on the island, suggested I evacuate down the hill where there might be more protection.  We were getting email warnings as to the size of the incoming storm.  My front door had swelled from the rain and was jammed shut.  My back door wouldn’t lock from the outside so rather than leave the house open, I decided to stay put.  It’s a block house, good construction, solid.  Damien was in a similar house down the hill from me.

By 5pm, I was feeling decidedly sorry for the three chickens and two goats huddled under the solar panels at the end of my house.   Any port in a storm!

6pm and nightfall, the messages are telling us to expect it to hit around midnight, and I’m thinking, cripes, it already sounds pretty bad outside.  The International Rescue Committee (IRC) boat team have us checking in on the hour to try to track the storm’s progress.

7pm check-in comes.

I miss the 8pm check-in, as I’m now furiously mopping my floor to stop the water flooding in.  Did I mention I live on a hill, so I’m not getting flooding as such; the water was being driven through every gap in my door or windows by the strong wind.

By 9pm, we still have signal, but it is starting to go in and out of coverage.  All checked in and all okay.  I’m even doing my guitar practice to pass the time. It’s candle light only to conserve as much solar charge as possible.

We are approaching the witching hour and what we had first heard was the hurricane’s peak.  It was bad but pretty much like the tropical storm we had back in August.

Hurricane Matthew via social media

My daughter and I have a secret code that we use to let each other know we are okay.  From 3pm onwards, there are a number of short texts in code to my daughter.  I am still in organising mode to ensure the house is all ready.  I’m chatting to all my family via Facebook and conserving phone battery.  I’m checking in with my friends to make sure everyone is home and safe.

To my daughter9:04pm – All ok here still. Might try sleeping.

10pm, 11pm: check-in with IRC.  Caught some sleep.  It has worsened considerably.

To IRC – 12:30am – Coverage intermittent.  Checking in 00:30am Tuesday 4th.

It’s approaching morning time in Ireland.

To my daughter 1:00am – Trying to sleep XXXX

To IRC – 1:00am – Checking in.

By 1am, after yet another round of mopping, it was time for a quick rest.  The water was coming in faster and faster; the wind was louder; and there were all these intermittent, loud bangs like something heavy falling.  It didn’t sound like this storm was diminishing.

2am check-in comes and goes, and I’m now mopping all of the time, two buckets of water to get rid of every half hour.  I’m wondering how long I can keep it up as my arms are exhausted.  It is helping to keep my mind off the increasing screaming wind outside and the fears that are now starting to grow.

To my daughter3:00am – Water coming in under the door. Busy mopping.

To IRC – 3:00am – Checking in. Matthew is nearly at full tilt on IAV.

My ears had started to hurt from the continuous loud howling noise outside.

To my daughter – 4:00am – At least the mopping is keeping me busy. If it calmed down a bit I might sleep again. Time for a snack!

To IRC – 4:00am – Checking in. Right after 3am it got worse. I didn’t think it was possible.

A little after the 4:00am check-in, my neighbour’s roof lifted clean off their house and disappeared into the wind. It screamed as it lifted and whipped past my house.  16 adults and children landed to my door as we are being battered of winds reaching 145mph.  The intermittent banging continues.  While we were getting everyone inside, the water flooded into my house and we just had to sit there in an inch of water for the rest of the night.

To my daughter6:07am – Hopefully all my messages will reach you once the signal comes back [so you will know I am okay].  6am and daylight but Matthew hasn’t finished yet.  Jean Claude banged on my door at 4:30am.  The roof is gone off their house.  They, their family and friends are all here.  We slept a little in chairs once we had settled down.  We had to nail the front door shut around 5:30am.  First it wouldn’t open and then it wouldn’t close.

To IRC – 6:00am – Checking in.  Storm hasn’t diminished.  Neighbours had to evacuate to here just after 4am when the roof of their house went.  Everyone safe but a big shock for adults and children alike.

To my daughter – 6:09am – No one injured thank god but I expect we will hear bad news later from other parts.  I’ll tell you all about it when it is over.  Xx

To my daughter7.17am – Surviving

We found out after that the eye of the hurricane passed over us around 7:00am-8:00am on Tuesday.  I have always thought that the eye of the hurricane gets quiet; it is clearly not the case during a Category 5 storm.  Around 8:00am, friends came to see if I was okay and told us of the devastation along the route.  They left quickly to return home.

To IRC  10:20am –  It’s still hurricane force here. We keep waiting for it to brighten and as I write it lifts a little. People are anxious to start salvaging their homes and property.

I’ve never been through a hurricane before.  It was a traumatic night and we are very much in shock after it.

As much as I was scared, thoughts immediately turn to our friends and neighbours, all of whom have lost their houses.  That nobody was seriously injured is the only positive we can take from it.

I found out the source of the intermittent banging throughout the night: my bathroom shed has disappeared  The roof and metal door, and the internal wall have fallen over.  There are large coconut, mango and banana trees scattered like matchsticks all over the hillside.  Some narrowly missed houses and schools.

To family and friends via Facebook10:32am – We’ve made it but it’s hit us hard, it has been the worst night. Houses between here and Chache Lavi [our office, which is only 5 minutes from my house] are knocked.  The office roof is gone.  It is clean up and recovery mode, we have no choice only to get out and do it.  If the quarter mile around our house is an indication of the rest of the island then we will need help and need it fast.


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