Paula weakens to tropical storm, hugs Cuban coast

Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 2:20pm

HAVANA (AP) -- Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Paula turned rutted country roads into red-brown, muddy quagmires and strong winds lashed humble homes, rural schools and thatched tobacco-drying huts in Cuba on Thursday.

A Category 2 hurricane the previous day, Paula lost strength as it crawled along the island's northwestern coast and was downgraded to a tropical storm in the morning. Cuban officials said they were optimistic the system would not bring a repeat of the devastation wrought by three monster storms that hit in 2008.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Paula had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (105 kph) and its core was about 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Havana, with reports of heavy rain in the westernmost part of the island.

The storm was moving east at about 10 mph (16 kph), and forecasters projected it to curve closer to the coast or over Cuba itself during the day. Paula was small in area, with tropical storm force winds extending about 45 miles (75 kilometers) from the center.

Cuban authorities warned inhabitants of western Pinar del Rio province to monitor the storm closely, saying sea swells and heavy waves could cause flooding along both the southern and northern coasts. There were no reports of significant damage.

A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the capital and surrounding areas, though the island's chief meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the storm would likely continue losing strength and become a tropical depression.

By Thursday afternoon, the skies above Havana were dark and ominous with strong but intermittent rainfall. The bulk of the storm was expected to reach the area on Friday.

Rubiera said rainfall associated with Paula would be lighter than once expected, though it could still cause problems in some areas.

"The future of this phenomenon is that it will continue to weaken," he said.

In Pinar del Rio, most residents took the storm in stride.

"The rains have not been as intense as we had expected," Aliuska Banos, 28, told The Associated Press by telephone Thursday from the town of Sandino, along the extreme west of the island. "There were gusts of wind this morning, but they were not even strong enough to knock down my television antenna, which is pretty weak."

The government activated Cuba's crack Civil Defense forces and declared an alert for Pinar del Rio and the Isla de la Juventud. Ferry service to the outlying island was suspended, and residents of western Cuba were urged to board up windows, tie down loose items and stay vigilant. No evacuations were ordered.

Cuba's weak economy was devastated when Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma hit Pinar del Rio and other parts of the island in 2008, starting in late August. Fruit and vegetables disappeared off shelves, and shortages were exacerbated by widespread hoarding. Some 1,200 people were arrested for hurricane-related crimes, accused of stealing everything from gasoline and cement to rice and powdered milk.

The trio of storms did an estimated $10 billion in damage - or a quarter of Cuba's total GDP - a terrible blow for a country already reeling from the global economic downturn, a drop in tourism and fallen prices for nickel and other raw materials.

Pinar del Rio is known for its high-quality tobacco fields and is crucial for Cuba's famed cigar industry. Growers had planned to begin planting Tuesday for next year's harvest, though many likely held off due to the storm.

Paula brushed by Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula before arriving to Cuba, causing the only fatality associated with the storm so far.

Mickey Goodwin, 54, of Corpus Christi, Texas, drowned Tuesday while swimming off a Cancun beach despite red flags warning of dangerous waters, Mexican authorities said.

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