Paloma Becomes Category 4 Storm, Heads Toward Cuba

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GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands – Paloma became an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 hurricane early Saturday, dumping wind and rain on the Cayman Islands and threatening to strike hurricane-ravaged Cuba as a major storm, forecasters said.

The late-season storm had top sustained winds of near 140 mph (225 kph) and was expected to bring total rainfall accumulations of 5 to 10 inches over the Cayman Islands as well as central and eastern Cuba.

The new forecast from the National Hurricane Center in Miami called for Paloma to make landfall in Cuba as a major hurricane late Saturday or early Sunday with maximum-sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph).

Cuba already is suffering from Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which struck the island earlier this season and together caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage.

"It's not like it's new to them, unfortunately," said Dave Roberts, a U.S. Navy hurricane specialist.

Cuban official newspaper 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."

At 7 a.m. EST, the center of Paloma was just southeast of Cayman Brac and moving toward the northeast near 8 mph (11 kph). The storm's center was expected to move away from Little Cayman and Cayman Brac on Saturday morning and was about 165 miles (265 kilometers) southwest of Camaguey, Cuba.

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

Water service across Grand Cayman was turned off, and power would likely will be cut as the storm neared, hazard management director Barbara Carby said.

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

Earlier, stranded tourists watched dark clouds gather and saw the storm whip up 10-foot (3-meter) waves from their hotels or beachfront restaurants.

"It was a real surprise," said Rick Douglas, 50, of Toronto, who checked weather Web sites before flying to the Caribbean. "It just said there was a tropical depression starting, but I didn't think it would turn into anything serious."

His wife, Susan Douglas, was confident they would be safe as long as they follow orders.

"Grand Cayman has been there and done that, so they are prepared," she said.

Havana'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 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.

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

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.

Muniran Charran, a construction worker from Guyana, said he first heard about the storm Thursday night over the radio.

"We didn't really have any time to prepare because the banks and the stores all closed so early today," he said.

He was drinking beers with friends in the downstairs lobby of their beachfront apartment complex.

"What we've been seeing all day is just a lot of rain and strong winds," Guyana native Shik Khan said. "We hope that when we wake up, everything is fine."