Deadly Tropical Storm Noel steams toward Bahamas

Residents struggle to cross a flooded street Wednesday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Residents struggle to cross a flooded street Wednesday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Churning in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, deadly Tropical Storm Noel approached Andros Island in the Bahamas early Thursday, bringing a torrential downpour of rain and tropical storm-force winds.

The National Hurricane Center said it expects Noel to pick up steam, prompting tropical storm watches to be issued for an area including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Florida.

The watch -- meaning tropical storm conditions, including winds of at least 39 mph (63 mph), are possible within 36 hours -- was issued for an area north of Ocean Reef to Jupiter Inlet, Florida, according to the hurricane center in Miami.

The storm has killed dozens of people in the Caribbean, mostly in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Meanwhile, the northwestern Bahamas faced a hurricane watch, meaning conditions including winds of 74 mph (119 kph) or greater are possible within the watch area within 36 hours.

The storm system has gained strength and could intensify a bit more, possibly becoming a hurricane, said CNN meteorologist Jenny Harrison.

Floridians should pay special attention to the potentially deadly tides and rip currents forming off the coast, Harrison said.

As of 5 a.m. ET, Noel's center was about 115 miles (185 kilometers) southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and 180 miles (290 kilometers) southeast of Miami. It was moving "erratically" toward the north near 6 mph (9 kph) and was expected to continue doing so over the next day and then make a gradual turn to the northeast, forecasters said.

"This motion should bring the center of Noel through the northwestern Bahamas" on Thursday and Thursday night, the hurricane center said.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were clocked at 60 mph (95 kph) with higher gusts. Some additional strengthening was forecast over the next 24 hours, the center said.

Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 130 miles (215 kilometers) from the storm's center.

A tropical storm warning was issued for Florida's southeastern coast from Ocean Reef to Deerfield Beach, while northwestern Bahamas remained under a tropical storm warning. The warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected in the area over the next 24 hours.

Harrison also said rains were expected to continue across much of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with "a lot of rain really coming in from the eastern side of this whole system."

Noel has triggered deadly flooding and landslides in Cuba and on Hispaniola, the island Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, forcing 37,500 residents from their homes.

The Dominican Republic's Center for Emergency Operations reported 30 deaths, 15 injuries and at least 25,000 evacuations.

Pointing to a deluged area, one resident said: "All that area ... was a town that disappeared."

Another resident said, "Absolutely nothing was left here because God took everything."

The Dominican Republic government on Wednesday arranged for $200 million in emergency aid for the disaster-struck areas. The money will be chiefly used to finance the construction of temporary homes and the repair of damaged buildings and houses, a press statement said.

In Haiti, devastating floods and mudslides have ravaged the area and left 34 people dead, World Vision aid worker Elvire Douglas said in a phone call from Port-au-Prince.

More than 9,000 people have sought refuge in shelters after nearly 2,000 homes were damaged and 745 others were destroyed, Douglas said.

"We still have 14 people missing, and I saw some families searching for their loved ones and still don't know where they are," she said.

Cuban civil defense officials said about 9,000 people had been evacuated from the island's eastern part that the storm hit hardest. The Cuban government has canceled its tropical storm warning.

Noel was expected to dump up to 10 inches of rain over the Bahamas, with isolated amounts of up to 15 inches in some areas. An additional 2 to 4 inches was forecast to fall on eastern Cuba and Hispaniola, the hurricane center said. One to 2 inches is possible over portions of South Florida.

Noel, the 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic season, began gathering strength Sunday in the Caribbean.