(CBS/AP) Tropical Storm Noel battered south Florida with high surf and winds as it swirled slowly toward the Bahamas Thursday after triggering mudslides and floods in the Caribbean that killed at least 81 people.
Forecasters warned of worsening storm conditions in the Bahamas later in the day, and the government issued a hurricane watch for the northwestern parts of the archipelago. On Andros Island, the chain's largest, boat owners tied their vessels down ahead of the storm.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center on Thursday issued a tropical storm warning for the southeastern Florida coast from Ocean Reef to Deerfield Beach. A tropical storm watch was in effect from north of Deerfield Beach to Jupiter Inlet. A warning means tropical storm conditions are expected within 24 hours while a watch means such conditions are possible within that area.
"It'll remain very windy across Florida where extremely rough seas have caused widespread beach erosion all along Florida's eastern shoreline," says CBS News meteorologist George Cullen.
"They're expecting the worst of the winds in about two to three hours. But there's already a sense of relief here in South Florida that we have dodged another bullet," reports Evan Bacon of CBS station WFOR-TV.
The deadly storm dumped rains on the Dominican Republic and Haiti Wednesday night, more than two days after it struck the island of Hispaniola, where rescuers were struggling to reach communities cut off by flooding.
As they did, they found a rising toll of death and damage - at least 56 dead in the Dominican Republic, 24 in neighboring Haiti and one in Jamaica.
Two days after a swollen river swept away the hamlet of Piedra Blanca in central Dominican Republic, Charo Vidal described climbing into a tree and watching her neighbor struggle to do the same, clutching infant twins while the waters swept an older daughter away.
"She couldn't take care of all three," Vidal said. "That is something very profound, to have a child snatched from your hands and you cannot do anything for them."
"The river tore her from my hands as I held her," said the mother, Mary De Leon.
At least seven people died in Piedra Blanca, emergency officials said.
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez declared a 30-day state of emergency and asked for international help, especially rescue teams and helicopters. He also ordered residents to evacuate from dozens of potential flood zones.
At least 58,300 Dominicans fled their homes, some 14,500 of which were damaged, said Luis Antonio Luna, head of the Emergencies Commission. He said at least 56 people had died in the Dominican Republic so far.
Luna said officials were trying to reach dozens of isolated communities, but bad weather, a lack of helicopters and damage to bridges and highways slowed rescue efforts. He said at least 27 people were reported missing.
In neighboring Haiti, floods rushed through the capital's Cite Soleil slum, carrying away a 3-year-old boy. Two people were killed when their house collapsed in a mudslide in the hillside suburb of Petionville, and at least three others died in Jacmel.
Noel is the deadliest storm to hit this part of the Caribbean since Tropical Storm Jeanne hit Haiti in 2004, killing an estimated 3,000 people with massive flooding and mudslides.
For the Atlantic region as a whole, Noel is so far the second deadliest of the 2007 season. Hurricane Felix, a monster Category 5 storm, killed at least 101 people in early September, mostly along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.
At 8 a.m. EDT, Noel's center was about 110 miles southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 175 miles southeast of Miami. The storm was moving erratically toward the north at 6 mph, but was expected to eventually turn northeast away from Florida. It had top sustained winds near 60 mph, with stronger gusts, forecasters said.
Rough surf warnings were in effect for much of South Florida. Waves were pounding beaches in the Miami area, and residents of a waterfront condominium in South Palm Beach were urged to evacuate after pounding surf destroyed a retaining wall damaged this month in another storm.
(CBS)There was huge beach erosion on Singer Island, Fla., where Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel demonstrated the extent on CBS News' The Early Show.
"I had to use an extension ladder, a 20-foot extension ladder, to get up and down to the beach," Cantore (left) said. "It's going to continue at the time of high tide probably for the next couple of high tide cycles."
Michael Stubbs, a government meteorologist, said Noel was expected to be close to hurricane strength when spinning west of Andros Island at about dawn Thursday. It was forecast to veer east, away from the United States, after churning past the northeast Bahamian island of Abaco.
"Noel will transform from being a tropical system into a fierce mid-latitude cyclone or a true 'Nor'easter' and could actually strengthen to have hurricane force winds as it moves parallel to the Eastern Seaboard over the next two days," says Cullen. "All mariners should stay in port, as 15- to 20-foot seas along with a big swell and the fierce winds will create extremely dangerous conditions up and down the coastline during the next 24 to 48 hours."