Tropical Storm Noel strengthened on Sunday as it crept over the Caribbean and threatened to lash impoverished Haiti with potentially deadly rains, U.S. forecasters said.
The storm, with top sustained winds of 60 miles per hour (95 km per hour), was moving slowly toward Haiti's southwestern peninsula and was expected to head toward southeastern Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
While the storm's track was highly uncertain, the hurricane center forecast it was likely to curve back to the northeast near the end of the week and head out over the Bahamas into the Atlantic rather than into the Gulf of Mexico and its important U.S. oil and gas facilities.
It was also unclear whether Noel, the 14th named storm of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, would have an opportunity to strengthen into a hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph) because that would depend on whether it stayed over warm water or spent more time over land.
"The amount of interaction with land during the next 2-3 days is still rather uncertain, but the official intensity forecast indicates strengthening since the cyclone will be mostly over water if the official track forecast verifies," hurricane center forecaster Richard Knabb wrote in a discussion piece on the storm.
"It is not out of the question that Noel could become a hurricane prior to passing over Cuba."
By 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Noel was located around 125 miles
south-southeast of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and was moving to the north-northwest at 5 mph (8 kph), the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Storms alerts were posted for Haiti, parts of southeast Cuba, and for Jamaica. Cuba also issued a hurricane watch for the provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and Holguin. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.
The more immediate threat from the storm appeared to be its rains, especially to Haiti where the hillsides are denuded of trees because people chop them down for charcoal and where storms frequently cause devastating flashfloods and mudslides.
Around 3,000 people died in the port city of Gonaives in 2004 when heavy rains from Tropical Storm Jeanne buried the city in mud as it passed to the north of Haiti on its way to hit Florida as a hurricane.
The hurricane center said Noel could dump 8 inches to 12 inches of rain, with isolated downpours of up to 20 inches, over Cuba, Jamaica and parts of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The six-month hurricane season runs until the end of November. The peak of the season, in September, was unusually quiet but the development of a La Nina weather phenomenon in the equatorial Pacific has the potential to make late-season storms more likely than in other years, experts say.
So far the season has spawned four hurricanes, two of which became potentially catastrophic maximum-strength Category 5 storms before slamming into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Central America.