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Tropical Storm Noel claims 48 lives, threatens Florida

  • Story Highlights
  • Tropical storm watches issued for southeast Florida
  • 30 deaths reported in Dominican Republic, 18 in Haiti
  • 9,000 people evacuated in eastern Cuba, 28,500 on Hispaniola
  • Wind, rip current, jellyfish make swimming dangerous in South Florida
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(CNN) -- Tropical Storm Noel, which has killed at least 48 people, was moving away from the Cuban coast late Wednesday and strengthening over warm waters, prompting tropical storm watches to be issued for South Florida.

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Rain clouds on the edges of Tropical Storm Noel loom over Miami Beach, Florida, on Wednesday.

The watch -- meaning tropical storm conditions, including winds of at least 39 mph, are possible within 36 hours -- was issued for an area north of Ocean Reef to Jupiter Inlet, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. That area includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Forecasters said, however, that tropical-storm force winds are likely to remain offshore from Florida.

Meanwhile, a hurricane watch was issued Wednesday night for the northwestern Bahamas. A hurricane watch means conditions including winds of 74 mph or greater are possible within the watch area within 36 hours.

Noel triggered deadly flooding and landslides in Cuba and on Hispaniola and forced 37,500 residents from their homes.

As of 11 p.m., the center of Noel was about 140 miles (230 km) south-southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 210 miles (335 km) south-southeast of Miami.

It was moving north at near 3 mph (6 kmh) and was expected to continue doing so over the next day, with a gradual turn to the northeast thereafter, forecasters said.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were near 60 mph (95 kmh) with higher gusts. Some additional strengthening is forecast over the next 24 hours, the hurricane center said.

Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 115 miles (185 km) from the storm's center.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the Cuban provinces of Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Granma, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.

A warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected in the warning area over the next 24 hours. A tropical storm warning also was in effect for the central Bahamas.

The Dominican Republic's Center for Emergency Operations reported 30 deaths, 15 injuries and at least 25,000 evacuations.

The impoverished nation of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, had 18 deaths and almost 3,500 evacuations from the storm, said Marie Alba Jean-Baptiste, director of Haiti's civil protection agency.

Cuban civil defense officials said about 9,000 people had been evacuated from the eastern part of the island that was hardest hit by the storm. Photo See the scenes of heavy flooding »

Parts of Florida were being buffeted by strong winds and dangerous currents Wednesday, the hurricane center said.

"The existing wind advisory and gale warning may need to be replaced by a tropical storm warning," the hurricane center said earlier Wednesday.

Dangerous rip currents prompted lifeguards to hoist red flags on South Florida beaches, CNN affiliate WPLG in Miami reported.

"The wind is so strong, it is sandblasting people out on the beach, and that actually keeps the crowds down. That means we have fewer people to look out for," Miami Beach lifeguard supervisor Hank Oppenborn told WPLG.

Lifeguards are also flying purple flags warning swimmers of the possibility of dangerous Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish close to shore, WPLG reported. Video Watch a woman and child being rescued from rushing waters »

Homestead Air Reserve Base, near Miami, prepared for the storm Tuesday by relocating 24 F-16 fighter jets to Dobbins Air Force Base near Atlanta, Georgia.

Some airline flights between the Bahamas and the United States were canceled. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines changed the itineraries of some cruises to avoid the worst of the storm.

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Noel was expected to dump up to 10 inches of rain over the Bahamas, with isolated amounts of up to 15 inches in some areas. An additional 2 to 4 inches was forecast to fall on eastern Cuba and Hispaniola, the NHC said, and 1 to 2 inches is possible over portions of South Florida.

Noel is the 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic season. It began gathering strength Sunday in the Caribbean Sea. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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