SANTO DOMINGO, Nov 3 (Reuters) The death toll from devastating floods in the Dominican Republic unleashed by Tropical Storm Noel could exceed 100, officials said yesterday, as rescuers on boats and helicopters continued to try to reach communities cut off by raging rivers.
The official body count yesterday after days of torrential rain reached 79 in the Dominican Republic, with 43 people listed as missing, the Emergency Operations Center said. Close to 65,000 people in the Caribbean country of around 8 million had been driven from their homes.
''In reality we can't rule out that the number of deaths will exceed 100, that's what we fear, because there are still areas that we haven't been able to reach because of floods and collapsed bridges,'' said a Civil Defense official who asked not to be identified.
Noel turned into a hurricane on Thursday night as it raced away from the Bahamas toward Nova Scotia in Canada. It was expected to turn into a nontropical but still powerful ''Nor'easter'' by the time it brushed Cape Cod on Saturday.
In Haiti, the storm killed 43 people, while 15 were missing. Six thousand homes were damaged or destroyed and 14,000 people were living in shelters, said Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the civil protection force in the impoverished country.
''We fear the rain may continue to fall over the next two days, so we call on the population in areas at risk to be vigilant in order to avoid further damage and loss in human lives,'' Jean-Baptiste said.
One person died in Jamaica as did another in the Bahamas -- a radio DJ who drowned while trying to swim to safety after his truck became submerged in flood waters.
WORST DISASTER IN YEARS If the 100-plus death toll feared by the Dominican authorities were to be confirmed, Noel would represent the worst natural disaster in the country since spring floods in May 2004 killed around 250. The same floods killed 2,000 people in neighboring Haiti.
Noel would also represent the Dominican Republic's worst brush with a tropical cyclone since Hurricane Georges killed nearly 300 people in 1998.
Noel was not the only deadly storm of the 2007 hurricane season.
In early September this year, Hurricane Felix killed at least 130 people in Central America.
In the Dominican Republic on Friday, civil defense brigades fanned out in helicopters and boats to reach flooded or cut-off villages in the area of Bajo Yuna, 170 miles (280 km) northeast of Santo Domingo.
''The situation remains critical in many areas. We are searching for people listed as missing with the help of volunteers but it continues to be difficult,'' civil defence chief Luis Luna Paulino said.
President Leonel Fernandez, who spent Thursday and yesterday flying to survivors huddled in shelters, ordered health officials to carry out fumigation plans to prevent a surge in mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.
Fernandez promised the homeless the government would help repair their homes or build new ones and would distribute food and medicine.
The government set up an emergency fund of just over 31 million dollar for urgent repairs to infrastructure such as downed bridges, and said the Inter-American Development Bank had approved a 200 million dollar loan and a 20 million dollar line of credit.
Hundreds of acres of farmland have been damaged or remain inundated but Agriculture Minister Salvador Jimenez said there would be no food shortages.
The government said aid from other countries had begun to arrive.
Reuters PBB GC0648