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msnbc.com news services
updated 10/12/2010 6:40:17 PM ET 2010-10-12T22:40:17

Mexico began evacuating tourists and residents from islands off the Yucatan peninsula Tuesday as Hurricane Paula, a Category 2 storm, churned closer toward the country's coast.

Packing winds of of 100 miles per hour, Paula is expected to approach the Yucatan coast, home to hundreds of resorts, by Wednesday before veering toward Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane center said.

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The Miami-based center said Paula was a "small" Category 2 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

The storm was not forecast to hit Mexico's main offshore oil-producing region in the Gulf of Mexico and, passing off the coast of Honduras and Belize Monday, it did not cause further damage to coffee-growing areas of Central America already battered this year by heavy rains.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the coast of Mexico from Punta Gruesa northward to Cabo Catoche, including the tourist island of Cozumel, and Cuba's Pinar del Rio province.

Ferry trips to the Yucatan's outlying islands Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Holbox were canceled for Tuesday evening and cruise ships scheduled to dock on Cozumel were rerouted at least until Thursday, island officials said.

There are currently around 30,000 tourists in Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is located, and over a dozen shelters have been set up to received people fleeing the storm from around Cancun and Cozumel.

Moving north-northwest at near 9 mph, Paula's center was likely to pass just to the east of Cancun on Wednesday morning, and could near Category 3 strength by then, according to the Hurricane Center.

Quintana Roo Governor Felix Gonzalez said Paula posed the biggest threat to the tourist islands near Cancun.

"The (hurricane) is headed for the north of the state, especially along the eastern coast of Cozumel, which is a very populated area," Gonzalez told local radio.

Around 2,500 people were evacuated from the tiny island of Holbox, where tourists flock to catch sight of flamingos, wild birds and rare whale sharks.

Residents of Cozumel boarded up windows as they bought water and canned food ahead of the storm, said Alfonso Gomez, who owns a trash collection business on the island.

"There is no reason to worry more than necessary. We just need to be prepared," Gonzalez said. "This is not a Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane, which are the most destructive."

Skies remained clear in the Cancun, Mexico's biggest tourist destination, Tuesday afternoon, but red flags warned swimmers away from the white-sand beaches.

Tuesday afternoon Paula was located about 105 miles south-southeast of Cozumel and was heading steadily northwest.

In Cancun, dozens of boat owners hauled yachts and other vessels to shore, while sea tour operators canceled reservations. At least one company, Transbordadores del Caribe, canceled ferry trips from Playa del Carmen to the resort island of Cozumel south of Cancun, though others were still operating while the still-mild weather.

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Armando Galmiche closed down his water-skiing tour business in Cancun and canceled 15 reservation he had for Tuesday afternoon.

"It's already low season for tourism and with this hurricane, things are going to get worse," he said, lamenting the loss of revenue.

Paula was expected to dump 3 to 6 inches of rain over eastern portions of the Yucatan peninsula and parts of western and central Cuba, with isolated maximum amounts of 10 inches of rain, the center said.

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"These rainfall amounts could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," it said, especially in mountainous areas of Cuba.

Paula swept through Honduras Monday when it was still a tropical storm, its winds knocking over trees and its rains destroying about 20 wooden houses in remote coastal towns.

Small mudslides blocked some roads but there were no reports of injuries or deaths or damage to coffee crops in one of Central America's biggest producers.

The storm comes as Mexico and Central America grapple with one of the wettest hurricane seasons in recent memory. Heavy rains have caused severe flooding and serious agricultural losses across parts of Mexico, prompting regional governors to ask Congress to reconsider plans to cut taxes.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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