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Tropical Storm Paula hits Cuban capital

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tropical Storm Paula brought winds and heavy rain to the Cuban capital on Thursday, turning some low lying streets into shallow rivers, bending palm trees and sending waves crashing against the city's famed Malecon sea wall, though there were no reports of serious damage.

With the storm losing steam by the hour, Cuban officials said they were optimistic it 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 55 mph (90 kph) and its core was about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Havana, on a course that would take it near the coastal resort area of Varadero.

The storm was moving east at about 14 mph (22 kph), and forecasters projected it to continue moving along Cuba's northern coast. Tropical storm force winds extended about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center, mostly north and east of the center.

A heavy rain poured down on the capital as dusk fell, and the sea, which had been as flat as a plate, quickly turned violent and frothy. Power was knocked out — or switched off — in most of the city, a normal precaution when winds are high. Waves crashed against the Malecon, and some streets were inundated with a foot or two of water.

The capital took its punishment after the storm passed over western Pinar del Rio, turning rutted country roads into red-brown, muddy quagmires, and lashing humble homes, rural schools and thatched tobacco-drying huts with wind.

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.

The island's chief meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the storm would likely continue losing strength and become a tropical depression.

"The future of Paula is to keep moving eastward and weaken in the coming hours," 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.

A weakening Tropical Storm Paula moved ashore in Cuba Thursday and neared the Cuban capital, where thunderstorms raked the city with winds and driving rain.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of the small storm was now 40 miles southwest of Havana, its top winds had dropped to 60 miles per hour and would continue falling.

"Paula is expected to become a tropical depression on Friday," it said.

As the storm neared, skies grew dark in Havana, thunder rattled across the skies and wind and rain swept through the streets. Some streets of the scenic but crumbling city were partially flooded and some trees were blown down, residents reported.

Radar indicated the worst of Paula remained offshore over the Straits of Florida and the storm conditions would not last too long, Cuban weather forecaster Jose Rubiera said on national television.

Paula was moving east at 9 mph , the Miami-based hurricane center said.

Earlier, wind gusts up to 68 mph had been measured at the northwestern coast where Paula came ashore, the center said.

Cuba reported its western tip had received 4.5 inches of rain in 24 hours.

Cuban state media said about 120 people were evacuated as a precaution from low-lying areas of westernmost province Pinar del Rio, which along with other parts of Cuba was badly hit by destructive hurricanes in 2008.

There were no immediate reports of serious flooding.

Pinar del Rio is where the premium tobacco for Cuba's world-famous cigars is grown, but local officials said tobacco fields had been protected and leaves from the previous harvest safely stored.

Paula, the 16th named storm and ninth hurricane of the busy 2010 Atlantic season, had not affected offshore oil-producing regions in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Wednesday, Paula brushed Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. It had been a Category 2 storm.

Mexican authorities earlier said American Mickey Goodwin, 54, of Corpus Christi, Texas, drowned Tuesday while swimming off a Cancun beach after he ignored warnings and red flags alerting to dangerous waters from the storm.

It was the only fatality reported so far.