Hurricane Paloma gains intensity as Cuba evacuates tens of thousands
(LPP Archive) - Saturday, November 8th 2008, 6:22 PM
Evacuees arrive at a shelter before the arrival of Hurricane Paloma in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, Saturday, Nov. 8.
HAVANA - Paloma neared Cuba as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane Saturday, forcing authorities to evacuate tens of thousands of people and farmers to protect crops on an island still reeling from two other devastating storms.
Former President Fidel Castro warned 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 destroying nearly a third of Cuba's crops.
Paloma's outer rain bands were already lashing Cuba's southern coast late Saturday, 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.
Cuba's National Information Agency reported that poultry and pork operations were being secured and crops protected in the eastern provinces of Camaguey andSantiago. In Camaguey province alone, more than 72,000 people had been evacuated from vulnerable coastal areas, state television reported.
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, but Cuba regularly evacuates large numbers of people for tropical storms and hurricanes — a measure that historically has prevented major loss of life during natural disasters.
In an essay published Saturday in Cuban state media, Fidel Castro warned that Paloma could further damage a farm sector already battered by storms that caused widespread shortages of fresh produce.
Paloma had top sustained winds near 145 mph (230 kph) late Saturday afternoon and was located about 35 miles (60 kilometers) southwest of Santa Cruz del Sur, Cuba. It was moving northeast near 10 mph (17 kilometers).
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.
"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, and the hurricane warning for Little Cayman and Cayman Brac were expected to be suspended in the evening.
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. Rubiera, the Cuban meteorologist, warned residents along the southern coast to be especially vigilant.
A sea surge from a hurricane on a similar path killed up to 3,000 people in Santa Cruz del Sur in 1932.
Forecasters expect Paloma to weaken into a tropical storm after striking the island and then dissipate into a low-pressure system near the Bahamas.
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.