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Tropical Storm Emily nears Haiti, threatening to deluge flimsy shanties and tents
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) ' Joceline Alcide stashed her two kids' birth certificates and school papers in little plastic bags that aid groups handed out. It was the only precaution she could take as Tropical Storm Emily neared disaster-stricken Haiti with torrential rains.
Alcide is one of more than 600,000 Haitians living in flimsy shanties that sprung up in the aftermath of last year's earthquake. Emily, which is forecast to batter Haiti's southwestern peninsula early Thursday, could be disastrous to them.
"There really isn't much more we can do. We just got these bags," the 39-year-old Alcide said, standing outside her teepee-like tarp shelter.
The storm was stalled off the coast of the Dominican Republic Wednesday night and appeared set to skirt that country's southern dip. It had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph).
Dominican authorities dropped a tropical storm warning Wednesday night from Cabo Francis Viejo southeastward to Cabo Engano. One remained in effect along the southwestern coast.
But the intense rain still posed a threat to the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola, said Diana Goeller, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The countries are divided by a range of high mountains.
"This storm has a lot of heavy rainfall with it," Goeller told The Associated Press. "So in those mountainous areas, there could be very dangerous, life-threatening mudslides or flash floods."
The worst rainfall was expected to miss the Haitian capital, but it could be enough to cause severe flooding and increased misery. Rain already was falling on Port-au-Prince's eastern side by late Wednesday afternoon. A U.N. aid group distributed cholera prevention kits to help fight the waterborne disease, and the government set up a network of shelters.
Francois Prophete, who was shoring up the corrugated-metal roof of his one-room cinder block home in the hills southeast of Port-au-Prince, said most people had few options in a nation where the vast majority are desperately poor. "We can't afford to do much," he said.
Others just hoped the storm would skip Haiti.
"If any storm comes, we meet our demise," said Renel Joseph, a 57-year-old resident of Cite Soleil, a seaside shantytown of the capital.
Michel Davison of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said parts of the Dominican Republic could see up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain within 36 hours. Up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) is expected in rural Haiti and up to 6 inches (15 centimeters) in the capital.
The storm had already dropped up to 10 inches (250 millimeters) of rain in parts of Puerto Rico, though its center never got within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the island, the U.S. National Weather Service said.
Forecasters expected the mountains on Hispaniola to weaken the storm but still issued warnings for parts of Cuba and the Bahamas.
Civil defense officials and the military in the Dominican Republic moved dozens of families out of high-risk zones ahead of the storm.
Batista Geovanny nailed down the tin roof of his house near the Ozama river in Santo Domingo.
"You never know what might happen," said Batista, fearful that the riverbank outside his front door might burst.
In Haiti, local authorities urged people to conserve food and safeguard their belongings and prepared a fleet of buses to evacuate people from flooded areas.
An untold number of people took that advice and volunteered to leave their flood-prone houses to stay with relatives and friends, said Emmanuelle Schneider, a spokeswoman for the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. There had been no government-organized evacuations by Wednesday night, she added.
"There will be an official evacuation when there's flooding," said Schneider.
The U.N. force in the country put 11,500 troops on standby to provide aid. The International Red Cross alerted emergency teams that have access to relief supplies already in place for up to 125,000 people throughout the country.
There was reason for concern. A slow-moving storm in June triggered mudslides and floods in Haiti and killed at least 28 people.
That was the same storm that toppled Alcide's previous tent-like shelter, which stood on the side of a ravine. Her neighbors saw cinderblock houses slide down the hills in unforgiving mudslides.
Haiti's government urged people to evacuate their neighborhoods if there is flooding, but Vania Zamor said she had no plans to leave. She feared thieves might break into her sheet metal shack and steal the beans and rice she sells as a merchant.
Besides, "it's going to be very hard for us to leave because people rely on us," said Zamor, a 39-year-old camp leader in a ravine shanty in the Petionville section south of Port-au-Prince.
"If God doesn't protect the people living on the hills, there's going to be a lot of damage."
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was heading west at 14 mph (22 kph) Wednesday night, and it was expected to turn toward the northwest. The storm was about 75 miles (125 kilometers) southeast of Isla Beata in the Dominican Republic. It had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph).
The center of the storm is expected to make landfall on Haiti's southwestern peninsula late Wednesday or early Thursday.
As of Wednesday night, the storm had stalled about 75 miles (121 kph) southeast of the middle of the Dominican Republic, said John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center.
"The storm is probably reorganizing," said Cangialosi, adding the storm could then gather speed or take a different direction.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ezequiel Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and David McFadden in Kingston, Jamaica, contributed to this report.