Source AP ©

Deadly Tropical Storm Noel hits Cuba

Tropical Storm Noel's center spun slowly across Cuba as the tropical system's outer bands dumped heavy rains on island of Hispaniola, prompting thousands to flee their homes to escape rushing floodwaters and mudslides.

Hardest-hit by the sluggish storm were the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share Hispaniola, where emergency officials on Tuesday reported between 22 and 36 people dead. Death figures varied because of the difficulty of reaching remote parts of the island.

Forecasters projected the storm would emerge over water Wednesday near central Cuba and head northeast toward the Bahamas. Residents of southeastern Florida were advised to monitor the progress of Noel, which could pass close to the state over the next few days.

Warnings were in effect for rough surf for much of South Florida, including the Miami area, as waves were already pounding the region's beaches. But forecasters said the rains would likely miss drought-stricken Georgia, Alabama and other southeastern states.

Noel's outer bands were still pounding Hispaniola Tuesday evening even as the storm chugged away from the island, which is made vulnerable to flash floods by its many denuded hillsides.

In the Dominican Republic, almost 12,000 people were driven from their homes and nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed, while collapsed bridges and swollen rivers have isolated 36 towns, said Dominican emergency services spokesman Luis Luna Paulino.

"The rains continue to fall and we fear for several families," said Sergio Vargas, a merengue star and Dominican congressman who represents Villa Altagracia, a small town north of the capital, Santo Domingo.

Late Tuesday, Luna raised the Dominican death toll upward to at least 30 from 16, did not release specifics of the deaths. Earlier in the day he acknowledged miscalculating a previous toll.

"The rains continue to fall and we fear for several families," said Sergio Vargas, a merengue star and Dominican congressman who represents Villa Altagracia, a small town north of the capital, Santo Domingo.

In neighboring Haiti, at least six people died, including two women washed away by a river in the town of Gantier, said U.N. peacekeeping mission spokesman Mamadou Bah. Red Cross volunteers said a 3-year-old boy drowned as his family tried to rescue him from a raging river in the neighborhood of Duvivier.

In Port-au-Prince, thousands slogged through waist-high water that turned streets into brown rivers, carrying their last remaining possessions as they fled deluged shacks and makeshift homes. Refugees were brought by the truckload to the dense seaside slum of Cite Soleil, where they were packed into two schools and given food by volunteers.

About 2,000 people were evacuated from homes from the southern coastal city of Jacmel, where at least 150 residents were stranded on rooftops.

In Cuba, the government said about 1,000 homes had suffered damage, 2,000 people had been evacuated from low-lying areas across the island and schools were closed for several thousand students.

Bahamian authorities closed most government offices and lines formed at grocery stores and gas stations in Nassau, the capital. Rain from the outer bands of the storm forced tourists to cover themselves in trash bags or huddle for shelter in doorways.

"We're expecting a lot of rain and for conditions here to deteriorate starting tonight," Jeffrey Simmons, deputy director of the Department of Meteorology in the Bahamas, said Tuesday.

As of around 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), Noel's center was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Camaguey, Cuba, and about 235 miles (378 kilometers) south-southwest of Nassau, Bahamas. Noel had maximum sustained winds of about 40 mph (65 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

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