Storm heads towards Bahamas after killing at least 80

NASSAU, Bahamas, November 1, 2007 – The islands of the northern Bahamas are locked down and waiting for the arrival of the powerful Tropical Storm Noel which has killed at least 80 people in Hispaniola, destroyed over 100 homes in Cuba and displaced thousands.

Just before “major communication problems” disrupted the flow of data from a hurricane hunter aircraft to its data centre in Florida, the National Hurricane Centre in Miami reported that the storm had a burst of new energy with deep thunderstorms forming during the early hours of Thursday.

The storm is difting southwest of the northern Bahamas and the hurricane specialists believe that the centre is reforming.

Noel has left at least 56 dead and dozens missing in the Dominican Republic, according to the country’s National Emergencies Center (CNE) which said that one-third of the country is without power.

“The situation is still dangerous and the number of deaths could rise,” said Luis Luna Palino, head of CNE.

“Rescuing people is becoming difficult because the rains are continuing,” he told local radio.

“The worst of the situation is the flooding of rivers,” he added.

In neighbouring Haiti the Civil Protection Agency says at least 24 are dead.

Tropical Storm Noel dumped several inches of rain to the twin-state island of Hispaniola – shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic – onto soils that were already saturated by weeks of heavy rain.

In Cuba 20,000 people in the central section of the island were moved out of the path the water-laden storm.

Cuban Civil Defense authorities said that dams are full, rivers are swollen and the soil saturated from weeks of rain, and Tropical Storm Noel could be the proverbial straw that “breaks the camel’s back” – they warn that flooding and landslides are a real possibility.

Storm surge in northern Camanguey province destroyed 120 homes while floods have damaged coffee crops and cut off several towns and villages, Cuban radio reports.

Bahamas braces

In Nassau  schools and most businesses were shut down on Wednesday as storm shutters went up and sandbags deployed to shore up doors. Boats were moved to safe harbour and emergency shelters were opened.

The centre of Noel was expected to make landfall early Thursday but up to 0500 EST on Thursday Noel was about 115 miles southwest of the capital Nassau, drifting northward at near 9mph.

Maximum sustained winds are 60mph extending up to 130 miles from the centre. The central minimum pressure is 992mb.

The National Hurricane Centre in Miami said that Noel is expected to strengthen.

A hurricane watch remains in effect for the north-western Bahamas and a tropical storm warning for the central and northwest Bahamas.

Cuba has cancelled all watches and warnings.