Caribbean deaths mount in wake of Tropical Storm Noel

Wed Oct 31, 2007 9:45pm GMT

(Recasts with report of Dominican village swept away, adds Florida storm watch, previous HAVANA)

By German Marte

SANTO DOMINGO, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The death toll from Tropical Storm Noel's tremendous downpours in the Dominican Republic and Haiti climbed above 60 on Wednesday and officials and survivors said it could surge higher after two rivers broke their banks and swept away a Dominican village.

Local politicians and residents said the El Duey and Haina rivers swelled over their banks after days of rain and drowned at least 25 people, left 50 to 100 missing and made dozens of families homeless in Villa Altagracia, about 26 miles (42 km) outside the capital, Santo Domingo.

Dominican lawmaker Marino Mendoza said he had seen between 25 and 30 bodies strewn on the banks of the river and called on the government to declare a disaster.

"There were a lot of dead" in the floodwaters, said survivor Luis Melo.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean nation, 41 people were confirmed dead and 33 others missing as emergency workers fanned out to bring aid to towns and villages cut off by raging rivers and inundated by chest-high floods.

A least 25,540 people were homeless and 6,300 homes had been destroyed, said Luis Luna Paulino, head of the Dominican Republic's emergency operations. He appealed to boat owners to help rescue people trapped in cut-off villages.

The 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic storm season was not expected to strengthen into a hurricane over water after emerging off Cuba's northern shore and heading toward Florida and the Bahamas, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Forecasters projected the storm would veer northeast over the Bahamas on Thursday, away from Florida and well clear of U.S. oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico.

But a storm watch was issued for parts of the southeast Florida coast as the storm's interaction with a high pressure zone over the eastern United States kicked up a fierce surf and brought strong winds and whipping rains to the peninsula.

CUBA DOUSED

Thousands of people were evacuated from vulnerable areas but no casualties were reported in Cuba, which boasts one of the most effective civil protection operations in the region.

The storm dumped 6 inches (15 cm) of rain in just six hours over Baracoa in Cuba, causing floods and cutting off roads at the already waterlogged eastern tip of the island.

"We are getting a constant downpour and strong gusts of wind. The sea is very rough," said Hector Rodriguez, a hotel worker in Cayo Coco, an island resort on the north coast of central Cuba.

The Dominican Republic appeared the worst-hit from the storm. Several bridges had collapsed and mudslides blocked roads and at least 39 communities were cut off by floods, Luna Paulino said.

Emigdio Sosa, director of the presidential office's social assistance plan, said 145,000 families had been given emergency aid in the form of food, blankets, mattresses and mosquito nets. The government also expected to distribute construction materials such as zinc and wood.

"We project that we will be helping more than 300,000 families," Sosa said in a statement.

In Haiti, the most vulnerable of Caribbean countries to flash floods and mudslides because most of its trees have been chopped down to make charcoal, at least 24 people died, said national Civil Protection Office Director Alta Jean-Baptiste.

About 3,400 people were staying in emergency shelters and around 400 houses had been destroyed.

In Jamaica, one person died when a house collapsed in the heavy rain, the disaster preparedness agency said.

The storm's center was located just off the north coast of Cuba about 190 miles (305 km) south-southwest of Nassau in the Bahamas by 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), the hurricane center said.

Noel had been stationary for several hours but a general northward motion was expected over the next 24 hours, the hurricane center said.

Its top sustained winds were holding steady at 50 mph (85 km per hour), some way short of the 74 mph (119 kph) at which tropical storms become hurricanes. (Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Anthony Boadle in Havana)