Dozen dead as tropical storm drenches Hispaniola

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SANTO DOMINGO, Oct 29 (Reuters) At least a dozen people died and many more were reported missing in the Dominican Republic today after Tropical Storm Noel dumped torrential rain on the island of Hispaniola, cutting off communities and grounding flights.

The Dominican National Emergency Committee declared a red alert in six provinces and for the capital, Santo Domingo, as the 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season poured 10 to 20 inches (25 cm to 51 cm) of rain on the Caribbean country and over the treeless hillsides of neighboring Haiti.

In some areas downpours of up to 30 inches (76 cm) were possible, the US National Hurricane Center said.

In Bonao, 90 km north of Santo Domingo, at least five people were killed by floods while a few others were listed as missing, local officials said. The emergency committee reported another five deaths in San Jose de Ocoa, 135 km from the capital, and local radio said two people died in the capital district.

Flights to and from the International Airport of the Americas near Santo Domingo were suspended.

At 2030 hrs, the slow-moving storm was about to emerge off Haiti's north coast after struggling to maintain its intensity over the country's highlands, the Miami-based hurricane center said. Noel was expected to pass near Cuba's eastern tip and then cross over the Bahamas into the Atlantic, where it would speed off to the northeast.

Its track was expected to spare Florida and critical US oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

HAITIAN CAPITAL OVERCAST The storm swept past the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, but the heaviest rains appeared -- at least initially -- to have fallen over the Dominican Republic to the east.

The sky over Port-au-Prince was overcast today but rainfall had been relatively light, said Gary Philoctete of humanitarian relief operation CARE International.

''We had some rain yesterday. Today it's a bit cloudy,'' Philoctete told Reuters by telephone from Port-au-Prince.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is particularly vulnerable to deadly floods because 90 per cent of its forests have been chopped down, mainly to make charcoal. The Dominican Republic has far more tree cover.

In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne passed north of Haiti and buried the port city of Gonaives in mud, killing 3,000 people. In spring that same year, flooding in the south killed 2,000 more.

In the first two weeks of October this year torrential rains killed 31 people, most of them in the mountain village of Cabaret, and made 1,000 people homeless.

Noel's top winds fell to 45 miles per hour (75 km per hour) by the time it reached northern Haiti, the hurricane center said. It was moving north-northwest at 19 kph.

In addition to Haiti, storm alerts were posted for the central Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands.

Cuba maintained storm warnings for the province of Guantanamo, where the United States has a military base and a detention center for al Qaeda suspects, and the province of Holguin.

The six-month hurricane season runs until the end of November.

While the 14 storms so far this year are more than normal, it has been a far cry from the record-busting 2005 season, when 28 storms formed and several fierce hurricanes, including Katrina, slammed into the United States.

REUTERS GT BD2337

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