Tropical Storm Noel triggered mudslides and floods in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, pushing the region's death toll to 81 and forcing some parents to choose which of their children to save from the surging waters.
Forecasters warned of worsening storm conditions in the Bahamas yesterday 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.
Michael Stubbs, a government meteorologist, said Noel was expected to be close to hurricane strength when spinning west of northwest Andros Island at about dawn yesterday.
Noel was forecast to skirt southeastern Florida. The US National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for parts of southeast Florida's coast, which was already being buffeted by strong winds and high surf.
With rain still falling on Hispaniola -- the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti -- two days after the storm hit, 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 Haiti and one in Jamaica.
A swollen river overflowed its banks Monday night and swept away the hamlet of Piedra Blanca in the central Dominican Republic, forcing Charo Vidal to climb a tree. She watched her neighbor struggle to do the same nearby, clutching infant twins while water swept an older daughter away.
"She couldn't take care of all three," Vidal said on Wednesday. "That is something very significant, to have a child snatched from your hands and you cannot do anything for them."
The mother, Mary De Leon, was inconsolable.
"The river tore her from my hands as I held her," she said through tears.
Sagrario Diaz, a 42-year-old farmer, also struggled to hold on to his son in the surging waters but failed.
"I fought, I swear I tried to save him, but I couldn't," Diaz said. "I would like to die."
A neighbor, Lucia Araujo, said she heard the boy scream: "Daddy, I don't want to drown. Help me, I don't want to drown."
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez declared a state of emergency for the next 30 days and asked for international help, especially rescue teams and helicopters. He ordered residents in 36 communities to evacuate because they were in 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.
In neighboring Haiti, floods rushed through houses in the capital's Cite Soleil slum, carrying away a three-year-old boy as relatives frantically shouted for help.
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 in this part of the Caribbean since Tropical Storm Jeanne hit Haiti in 2004, triggering floods and mudslides that killed an estimated 3,000 people.
For the Atlantic region as a whole, Noel is the second deadliest of this season. Hurricane Felix, a monster Category 5 storm, killed at least 101 people in early September.
At 2am, Noel's center was about 200km south-southwest of Nassau, Bahamas, and about 315km southeast of Miami.