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Tropical Storm Noel kills 81 in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Tropical Storm Noel triggered mudslides and floods in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, pushing the region's death toll to 81 and forcing some parents to choose which of their children to save from the surging waters.

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Forecasters warned of worsening storm conditions in the Bahamas on Thursday, and the government issued a hurricane watch for the northwestern parts of the archipelago. On Andros Island, the chain's largest, boat owners tied their vessels down ahead of the storm.

Michael Stubbs, a government meteorologist, said Noel was expected to be close to hurricane strength when spinning west of northwest Andros Island at about dawn Thursday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center on Thursday issued a tropical storm warning for the southeastern Florida coast from Ocean Reef to Deerfield Beach. A tropical storm watch was in effect from north of Deerfield Beach to Jupiter Inlet. A warning means tropical storm conditions are expected within 24 hours while a watch means such conditions are possible within that area.

With rain still falling on Hispaniola - the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti - two days after the storm hit, rescuers were struggling to reach communities cut off by flooding. As they did, they found a rising toll of death and damage - at least 56 dead in the Dominican Republic and 24 in Haiti. One person was killed in Jamaica.

A swollen river overflowed its banks Monday night and swept away the hamlet of Piedra Blanca in the central Dominican Republic, forcing Charo Vidal to climb a tree. She watched her neighbor struggle to do the same nearby, clutching infant twins while water swept an older daughter away.

"She couldn't take care of all three," Vidal said Wednesday. "That is something very significant, to have a child snatched from your hands and you cannot do anything for them."

The mother, Mary De Leon, was inconsolable. "The river tore her from my hands as I held her," she said through tears.

"A lot of people had to choose between losing one child and losing another one," said Liony Batista, a project manager for Food for the Poor, an international Christian relief organization.

Sagrario Diaz, a 42-year-old farmer, also struggled to hold on to his son in the surging waters but failed. "I fought, I swear I tried to save him, but I couldn't," Diaz said. "I would like to die."

A neighbor, Lucia Araujo, said she heard the boy scream: "Daddy, I don't want to drown. Help me, I don't want to drown."

At least seven people died in Piedra Blanca, emergency officials said.

About 200 homes were destroyed in the nearby town of Bonao, Batista said.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez declared a state of emergency for the next 30 days and asked for international help, especially rescue teams and helicopters. He ordered residents in 36 communities to evacuate because they were in potential flood zones.

At least 58,300 Dominicans fled their homes, some 14,500 of which were damaged, said Luis Antonio Luna, head of the Emergencies Commission. He said at least 56 people had died in the Dominican Republic so far. Flooding also forced the evacuation of about 1,000 inmates from a prison north of the Dominican capital.