Hurricane Paloma heads to Cayman Islands

By: AP
By: AP

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) -- Late-season Hurricane Paloma bore down on the rain-drenched Cayman Islands on Friday, triggering a run on stores and stranding hundreds as the airport closed on the chain of tiny Caribbean islands.

The hurricane's center was expected to pass near Grand Cayman late Friday or early Saturday, then gain strength and punch a Cuba already suffering from billions of dollars in damage from two previous hurricanes this season.

Cuba's Communist Party daily Granma, recalling past late-season hurricanes such as a 1932 storm that killed about 3,000 people, said Paloma poses "a potential danger for the island."

Before hitting Cuba's midsection on Sunday, Paloma could grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Forecasters expect Paloma to weaken into a tropical storm over Cuba and then steer south of Florida through the Bahamas and into the Atlantic.

The Cayman Islands government urged residents to stay off the streets and began preparing for evacuations in low-lying southern coastal regions.

Water service across the island was turned off, and power likely will be cut as the storm nears, hazard management director Barbara Carby said.

Authorities asked all hotels to remove guests from the ground and first floors. Nearly 40 people were already staying in the islands' seven shelters.

"We have asked everybody to come off the streets and to be home and safe right now," she said.

Cayman Islands Gov. Stuart Jack said Friday that a British Royal Navy ship was on the way and would be available to provide humanitarian assistance if needed.

The airport closed Friday morning after extra flights were added to fly out some people late Thursday.

Joyce Kleinsteuber, of Louisville, Kentucky, waited at the airport all morning to change her flight, only to learn that all flights had been canceled.

"We thought we played it safe by coming in November after the hurricane season, but I guess not," she said. "It's not horrible, but I'd be happier if I got off the island before the storm hit."

Paloma had winds near 90 mph (150 kph) and forecasters said it could strengthen before reaching this affluent British territory. At midday, the storm was about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Grand Cayman, moving to the north at 6 mph (10 kph).

Cuba's communist government activated the early stages of its highly organized civil defense system. In central and eastern Cuba, people were advised to stay tuned to state media for news of Paloma's progress and be ready to evacuate.

Paloma was aiming toward the central-eastern city of Camaguey, which was particularly hard-hit by Hurricane Ike in early September.

Ike and Hurricane Gustav, which struck the island in late August, together caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage. Nearly a third of Cuba's crops were destroyed, causing widespread shortages of fresh produce and prompting authorities to order the planting of vegetable greens and other short-term vegetables.

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