Powerful Hurricane Paloma strikes storm-weary Cuba

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CAMAGUEY, Cuba (AP) -- Powerful Hurricane Paloma slammed into southern Cuba on Saturday as authorities scrambled to move hundreds of thousands of people to safer ground and protect crops on an island still reeling from two other storms.

Paloma made landfall near Santa Cruz del Sur as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, but quickly weakened into a still-ferocious Category 3 with winds of 120 mph (195 kph) winds and torrential rains, the National Hurricane Center said.

In the central-eastern province of Camaguey alone, more than 220,000 people were moved from low-lying, vulnerable areas to higher ground. Another 170,000 people were evacuated in the eastern province of Las Tunas.

Former President Fidel Castro warned in essay published Saturday that Paloma would damage roads and new crops planted after hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit in late August and early September, causing an estimated $9.4 billion in damage and destroyed nearly a third of Cuba's crops.

In the southern city of Camaguey, 79-year-old Rosa Perez was waiting out the storm at a government shelter at the University of Camaguey with her 83-year-old husband and about 900 others from the town of Santa Cruz del Sur.

Perez was a toddler when she watched her mother, older sister and about 40 other relatives swept away in a storm surge during a 1932 hurricane that killed about 3,000 people.

"We're just waiting to see what happens to our home and our beach," Perez said nervously.

Fellow Santa Cruz del Sur resident Aida Perez, who is not related, watched the news with her daughters, ages 19 and 10.

"This is a really hard blow," the 44-year-old said, adding she was certain they would lose their home and everything in it. "But what's important is that we are alive."

Outside, on the nearly deserted, flooded streets of the provincial capital, four men struggled in the pouring rain to carry a refrigerator to a more secure building.

The Miami-based hurricane center says the center of the Paloma Saturday evening was just east of Santa Cruz del Sur in southern Cuba. The hurricane, which earlier packed winds of 145 mph, was weakening over land. Forecasters say the storm is expected to weaken further as it crosses Cuba over the coming hours.

Paloma was moving northeastward at about 10 mph and was expected to hit the open Atlantic early Sunday.

Paloma's outer rain bands were already lashing Cuba's southern coast after the storm knocked out power across much of Grand Cayman Island. A hurricane warning was in effect across the central and eastern provinces of Cuba.

"Although it may weaken a bit, we have to pay full attention to this storm," top Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera said on state media.

Before landfall, Cuba's National Information Agency reported that poultry and pork operations were being secured and crops protected in the eastern provinces of Camaguey and Santiago. State television showed workers warehousing bags of rice, trimming tree branches and clearing out storm drains. Bus and train transportation across central and eastern Cuba was suspended.

There were no other immediate reports of evacuations in other provinces, but Cuba regularly evacuates large numbers of people to higher ground ahead of tropical storms and hurricanes - a measure that historically has prevented major losses of life.

On Grand Cayman, the late-season storm downed trees and flooded low-lying areas and ripped roofs off some buildings, but residents appeared to ride out the storm unscathed. Businesses reopened Saturday, and authorities were restoring power and water service.

Donovan Ebanks, chairman of the Hazard Management Committee, said there were no reports of injuries.

"Our indications are that there has been minimal if any damage on Grand Cayman," Ebanks said. Paloma's fierce winds ripped the roofs off some buildings on Cayman Brac, to the east.

Cleva Jackson, a hotel owner on Grand Cayman, said she had been unable to contact 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 Cayman Islands government discontinued the hurricane for Grand Cayman late Saturday afternoon.

The hurricane center said Paloma could bring battering waves and a life-threatening storm surge of up to 23 feet to parts of Cuba. Rubiera, the Cuban meteorologist, warned residents along the southern coast to be especially vigilant.

The Bahamas government late Saturday afternoon issued a tropical storm warning for the central Bahamas, including Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, Rum Cay, San Salvador, Acklins Island, Crooked Island and the Ragged Islands.


Associated Press writers Anita Snow in Havana and Trent Jacobs in George Town, Cayman Islands, contributed to this report.

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