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Tropical Storm Noel Kills 48 In Caribbean

Floodwaters and mudslides spawned by Tropical Storm Noel killed at least 48 people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, officials said Wednesday, raising the death toll as the storm's center spun slowly across Cuba and toward Florida.

Thousands on the island of Hispaniola shared by the two countries fled their homes as the tropical system's outer bands dumped heavy rains.

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.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Noel's top sustained wind was near 40 mph, down from 60 mph a day earlier, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Its center was 65 miles north-northwest of Camaguey, Cuba, about 195 miles south-southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 270 miles south-southeast of Miami. Some strengthening over the ocean could occur as it pulls away from Cuba.

Noel's outer bands pounded Hispaniola on Tuesday evening even as the storm chugged away from the island, which is made vulnerable to flash floods by its many denuded hillsides. Tropical storm-strength winds extended up to 175 miles from the storm's center. Above-normal tides and heavy rain were expected in its path into the Atlantic.

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 to at least 30 from 16, but did not release specifics of the deaths. Earlier in the day he acknowledged miscalculating a previous toll.

In neighboring Haiti, the death toll rose from six to at least 18, including two women washed away by a river in the town of Gantier, said Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, director of Haiti's civil protection agency. Red Cross volunteers said a 3-year-old boy drowned as his family tried to rescue him from a raging river in the vicinity 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 drenched 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 in 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.

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. Residents of a waterfront condominium in South Palm Beach were urged to evacuate after pounding surf destroyed a retaining wall that had been damaged earlier this month in another storm.

A tropical storm watch may be issued for southeast portions of the U.S. state if Noel shifts west or its wind field expands. A watch means tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours. But forecasters said the rains would likely miss drought-stricken Georgia, Alabama and other southeastern states.