By Anita Snow
Sunday, November 9, 2008
HAVANA, Nov. 8 -- Paloma slammed into southern Cuba as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane Saturday, while authorities scrambled to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people and protect crops on an island still reeling from two other devastating storms.
After making landfall near Santa Cruz del Sur, Paloma quickly weakened into a still-ferocious Category 3 hurricane with winds of 120 mph and torrential rains, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
In the central-eastern province of Camaguey, more than 220,000 people were moved from low-lying, vulnerable areas to higher ground. Another 170,000 people were evacuated in the eastern province of Las Tunas.
Former president Fidel Castro warned that Paloma would damage roads and 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.
Earlier Saturday, 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 José Rubiera said on state media.
Before Paloma made landfall, Cuba's National Information Agency reported that poultry and pork operations were being secured and crops protected in Camaguey and Santiago provinces. 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.
On Grand Cayman, the late-season storm downed trees, 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.
Donovan Ebanks, chairman of the Hazard Management Committee, said there were no reports of injuries. "Our indications are that there has been minimal if any damage on Grand Cayman," Ebanks said. Fierce winds ripped the roofs off some buildings on Cayman Brac.
The Cayman Islands government discontinued the hurricane warning 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 Bahamian government late Saturday afternoon issued a tropical storm warning for the central Bahamas.