But the disaster was far from the first to hit the western hemisphere’s poorest nation, and as Haitians counted their dead on Thursday they were also quick to help out their neighbours.
In the Sous-Roche district of Les Cayes, Haiti’s third city on its exposed southern coast, Dominique Osny was giving instructions to a friend helping him gather corrugated iron sheets ripped from a roof.
“I’ve been on my feet for two days without sleep. We need to help each other,” he told AFP amid the debris and destruction left when the storm passed through on Tuesday.
“Everyone is a victim here, houses have been washed away, we lost all the roofing. I lost everything, right up to my birth certificate,” he said, citing a vital document hard to replace in Haiti.
Sous-Roches Cayes was a quiet beachfront neighbourhood of the city before the storm, now drowned in mud and shattered trees.
The river level has begun to drop, but its waters are still mixed with the storm surge that inundated the beach during the hours-long battering by the Category Four storm.
“I thought I was going to die. I looked death in the face,” said 36-year-old Yolette Cazenor, standing in front of a house smashed in two by a fallen coconut palm. Over 10 hours, hurricane-force wind blasts and heavy rain levelled all the crops in the community’s fields, promising lean months ahead even by Haiti’s impoverished standards.
“I had fields of maize and of chili peppers, and 100 mango trees and a nursery where people could come and buy pre-germinated shoots for their own plots. I lost everything,” said Junior Jetro Cherubin.
Cherubin is cheered by the solidarity his neighbours are showing in their misery, but wants the whole of Haiti to stand up as well and right some of the errors of recent history.
“It is time that we work together to re-forest this country and to train people so they know how to build sturdy homes. Otherwise, each natural disaster will be as bad as the last,” he said. Haiti’s economic decrepitude is likely connected to its disastrous post-colonial legacy of foreign intervention and home-grown corruption.
The country has also had its fair share of natural disasters: Haiti sits on a hurricane path and in January 2010 was hit by a devastating earthquake that demolished much of the capital and left more than 250,000 dead.
Since then the nation has been struggling to overcome a cholera outbreak.
Some of its needs have been met by international aid — a religious mission Arise Haiti sent a truck to Les Cayes and an American woman was distributing food parcels as visited. But the large-scale international aid programs in place since the quake have been criticised for failing to build local capacity while spending millions on their own short-term programs.
And ordinary Haitians are sceptical of help from abroad.
“I’ve never believed in foreign aid. Please, don’t come back promising us billions again if nothing is to come of it,” said Gedeon Dorfeuille.
“And definitely don’t send in the army in again,” he declared, recalling how armed US soldiers arrived by helicopter after the earthquake “and then the aid agencies took 80 percent of the cash.”
Dorfeuille now believes that Haitians will have to care for themselves, and as the sun went down he was still working with his hammer, repairing roof after roof for his destitute neighbours.