Nassau, Bahamas A powerful Caribbean storm drenched the Bahamas and Cuba on Thursday while rescue workers in the Dominican Republic headed out in boats and helicopters to reach dozens of communities isolated by floods and mudslides. The death toll rose to 115.
Noel was upgraded to a hurricane Thursday evening. But it did most of its damage as a tropical storm as it became the year's deadliest tempest in the Atlantic region. Hurricane Felix, a devastating Category 5 storm, killed 101 people when it lashed the Caribbean and slammed into the Nicaraguan and Honduran coasts in early September.
Hurricane Noel's sustained winds had increased to 80 mph late Thursday night as it moved away from the Bahamas, the National Weather Service said.
Earlier Thursday, muddy rain-swollen waters overflowed a dam in Cuba, washing into hundreds of homes, over highways and knocking out electricity and telephone service. Dozens of small communities were cut off.
Cuban soldiers went door-to-door in low-lying areas and evacuated about 24,000 people, according to state radio and television reports. At least 2,000 homes were damaged by flood waters, but there was no official word of deaths.
In Ciego de Avila province in central Cuba, flooding wiped out nearly 2,000 tons of corn, potato, banana, cucumber and tomato harvests, said Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a vice president.
The storm brought a record 15 inches of rain to the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said. Flooding killed at least one man in the Bahamas and forced the evacuation of almost 400 people. Ingraham said the majority of the evacuees were from the northeast Bahamian island of Abaco.
Residents of Andros Island, one of the least-developed in the Bahamas, hunkered down as Noel's winds howled and rain pelted windowpanes.
"The walls were rattling, but we rode it out pretty well," said Angela Newton, who was waiting Thursday for the power to come back on.
Electricity also was turned off in Long Island, in the southeastern part of the Atlantic archipelago.
Nassau International Airport closed but was expected to reopen today. Only one of 10 cruise ships arrived on schedule.
Rescuers in Dominican Republic took off in helicopters and boats to reach isolated residents for the first time in three days. Hundreds of volunteers joined Dominican civil defense forces to help stranded residents, as rescue teams left at dawn Thursday - many in boats loaned by private owners.
"We will go to each point where there have been people affected who require the government's help ... so that we can return to a normal situation in the shortest amount of time possible," said Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.
On the southeastern Dominican coast, the U.S. Coast Guard was helping to free a Liberian gas carrier that broke loose from its moorings and ran aground on a reef. The 551-foot SCF Tomsk is carrying 1.9 million gallons of oil but is not leaking, according to a statement from the guard.
More than three days of heavy rain caused an estimated $30 million in damages to the Dominican Republic's rice, plantain and cacao plantations, said Minister of Economy Juan Temistocles Montas. Government officials will request loans from the Inter-American Development Bank to help with the recovery.