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Paula weakens after raging through Havana

Tropical Storm Paula weakened to a tropical depression Friday after dumping heavy rains on Cuba's capital, turning some of the streets into shallow rivers and knocking out power.
/ Source: news services

Much of Cuba's capital remained without power early Friday following a direct hit from Tropical Storm Paula, as cleanup crews carried away fallen trees and swept up chunks of concrete torn from the city's famed seawall.

The once-Category 2 hurricane was downgraded to a tropical depression in the morning, with maximum sustained winds dropping to 25 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Cuban officials discontinued all storm warnings.

Branches and palm fronds littered the broad, verdant 5th Avenue, home to foreign embassies and crumbling mansions, and at least a half-dozen large trees had come crashing down onto the gates of some properties. Police directed traffic since signals were blacked out.

State-run media carried no reports of major damage or injuries, and the island breathed a collective sigh of relief that the storm was not worse — and certainly nothing like the trio of powerful hurricanes that hit in 2008.

"In my home, the winds were tremendous ... but nothing at all bad happened," said Heidi Lao, a 19-year-old Havana resident. "We were expecting more."

One woman was slightly injured when the floor of her apartment collapsed in central Havana, neighbors said. Her husband and child, who were also at home at the time, were not hurt, and police kept onlookers away.

Havana's crumbling old buildings often suffer collapses due to heavy rains, sometimes days after a storm passes as support beams shift while drying out.

The official Communist Party newspaper Granma said the roofs of some homes and government buildings were damaged in western Pinar del Rio province, where the storm passed Wednesday and early Thursday. It said electricity pylons were toppled and several banana plantations damaged, but the rain also refilled water reservoirs and, on the whole, would be positive for agriculture.

Rogelio Iglesias, an Agriculture Ministry official in the region, told the paper that tobacco picked in past harvests had been safely stored away and was not damaged. Pinar del Rio is vital for Cuba's cigar industry, and planting for a new harvest was to get under way this week.

By late morning, the storm was moving east at about 9 mph, and forecasters projected it to continue in that direction before making a gradual turn toward the southeast.

Paula was expected to deliver an additional 1 to 2 inches of rain over central Cuba and the central Bahamas for the next day and a half, and up to an inch over parts of the Florida Keys, the Hurricane Center said.

By the time the storm has left Cuba it will have dumped up to 10 inches of rain in some areas of the island, and possible flash floods and mudslides were still a threat, forecasters said.

Paula dealt Havana a direct blow Thursday. Heavy rain poured down as dusk fell, and the sea, which had been as flat as a plate, quickly turned violent and frothy. In most of the city, gas and power was knocked out — or switched off, a normal precaution when winds are high. Waves crashed against the famed Malecon, or seawall, and some streets were inundated with a foot or two of water.

The lights came back on in many areas overnight, but went off again before sunrise, presumably to give crews a chance to repair fallen lines. Morning traffic was normal along the Malecon, even as sea spray drifted over the street.

The 2008 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 low prices for nickel and other raw materials.

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