Tropical Storm Noel dumps torrents on Haiti

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MIAMI, Oct 29 (Reuters) Tropical Storm Noel dumped torrential rain on vulnerable Haiti today, triggering fears of deadly flash floods and mudslides in the impoverished Caribbean country.

The storm weakened overnight and had top sustained winds of 70 km per hour by daybreak after it washed ashore on Haiti's southern coast and started to be disrupted by mountains, the US National Hurricane Center said.

Nevertheless, the slow-moving system was pouring 10 to 20 inches (25 cm to 51 cm) of rain over the treeless hillsides of Haiti and in some areas downpours of up to 30 inches (76 cm) were possible, the Miami-based hurricane center said.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti frequently suffers from deadly floods because 90 per cent of its forests have been chopped down, mainly to make charcoal.

In 2004, the passage to the north of Haiti of Tropical Storm Jeanne as it headed to Florida, where it would become a hurricane, buried the port city of Gonaives in mud, killing 3,000 people.

Earlier that year, spring flooding in the south killed 2,000 more.

Haiti has already been soaked this year.

In the first two weeks of October torrential rains killed at least 31 people, most of them in Cabaret, a village nestled in mountains just north of the capital Port-au-Prince, and made 1,000 people homeless.

By 8 a.m. EDT (1730 IST), the center of the storm was located near Port-au-Prince, the hurricane center said.

Noel was moving to the north-northwest at a slow 9 kph and its projected path, though highly uncertain, was expected to take it near eastern Cuba and then over the Bahamas into the Atlantic. If the computer models proved correct, the storm would not present a threat to Florida, nor to critical US oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to Haiti, storm alerts were posted for the central Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos islands, and Jamaica. Cuba issued a hurricane watch, just in case Noel strengthened again over water after crossing Haiti. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

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 a number of fierce hurricanes, including Katrina, slammed into the United States.

The season may not be over though -- the development of a La Nina weather phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific has the potential to make late-season storms more likely than in other years, experts say.

REUTERS SKB BD1827

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