Paloma becomes Category 4 storm, heads toward Cuba

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GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands – Paloma became an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane on Saturday and was threatening to strike hurricane-ravaged Cuba, after knocking out power across much of Grand Cayman Island.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted Paloma will make landfall in Cuba as a major hurricane late Saturday or early Sunday with maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph).

Cayman Brac, to the east of Grand Cayman, was still experiencing hurricane force winds that blew roofs off some buildings, although there were no reports of casualties, said Donovan Ebanks, chairman of the Hazard Management Committee.

Cleva Jackson, a hotel owner on Grand Cayman, said she was still trying to get in touch with relatives in Cayman Brac who sought refuge in an emergency shelter where the roof partially collapsed.

"The roof had caved in and everyone was trying to find shelter in the kitchen, but I haven't heard anything from them," she said. "We just can't get through."

The late-season storm downed trees and flooded some low lying areas on Gran Cayman, but residents appeared to ride out the storm unscathed. Businesses reopened Saturday morning, and authorities were restoring power and water service.

"We have no reports of any injuries or casualties. Our indications are that there has been minimal if any damage on Grand Cayman," Ebanks said.

Martin Richter, manager of a 100-year-old beachfront restaurant, said he was nonetheless relieved he spent most of Friday boarding up the business.

"We actually got very lucky on this one," he said. "We've lived through a lot of storms, so we know what to do when they come. But this one looked a lot worse than it was."

Paloma had top sustained winds near 140 mph (225 kph) Saturday morning. It was expected to bring total rainfall accumulations of 5 to 10 inches (12 to 25 centimeters) over the Cayman Islands as well as central and eastern Cuba.

In an essay published Saturday in state media, former Cuban President Fidel Castro said Paloma would surely damage roads and new crops planted after hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit in late August and early September. Those two storms caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage and destroyed nearly a third of Cuba's crops, causing widespread shortages of fresh produce.

Official Cuban 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."

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.

The center of Paloma was about 130 miles (210 kilometers) northeast of Grand Cayman and 130 miles (210 kilometers) southwest of Camaguey, Cuba. It was moving northeast near 9 mph (14 kilometers).

The hurricane center said Paloma could bring battering waves and a life-threatening storm surge of up to 23 feet (7 meters) to parts of Cuba.

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