Tropical Storm Noel turning away from Florida

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MIAMI, Nov 1 (Reuters) Tropical Storm Noel began to turn away from the Florida peninsula and toward the northwestern Bahamas today after dumping days of torrential rain in the Caribbean that killed at least 91 people.

Southeast Florida came under a tropical storm warning early in the morning, but shortly before midday Noel took a long-anticipated turn toward the north-northeast that was expected to spare the heavily populated areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale from feeling any of the storm's worst effects.

''On the forecast track, the center of Noel will be moving through the northwestern Bahamas today and slowly increasing its distance from the Florida coast,'' the US National Hurricane Center said.

Noel's top winds were holding steady at 95 kph by 11 am EDT (2030HRS IST), and it was projected to reach a peak intensity over the Bahamas short of the 119 kph wind speed level at which tropical storms become hurricanes.

Nevertheless, a hurricane watch was issued for the northwestern Bahamas in case Noel strengthened into a minimal Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION The storm left a trail of waterlogged destruction and death in the Caribbean after slamming the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba with unrelenting downpours.

At least 56 people died in the Dominican Republic, many of them swept away in muddy floodwaters after two rivers burst their banks and tore through the village of Villa Altagracia outside Santo Domingo.

Thirty-four people were confirmed killed in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, said Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the civil protection service.

In Jamaica, one person died when a house collapsed because of heavy rain.

In Cuba, thousands were evacuated from vulnerable areas and reservoirs overflowed, but no deaths were reported.

US forecasters projected the 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic storm season would accelerate toward the northeast, where it would quickly lose it tropical characteristics and become a powerful, hurricane-strength, extratropical storm over Nova Scotia.

By 11am (2030 HRS IST), Noel was located about 70 km southwest of Nassau in the Bahamas, and 280 km east-southeast of Miami, the hurricane center said.

It was moving to the north-northeast at 15 kph.

Reuters RJ GC2133

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