Paula drops heavy rain on Cuba

In Americas, Floods & Storms, News Headlines

HAVANA – A weakening Paula dumped heavy rains on Cuba’s capital, turning some of the streets into shallow rivers and knocking out power before sliding along the island’s northern coast.

Paula was behaving far less destructively than three monster hurricanes that devastated Cuba in 2008, however. Cuban officials discontinued all storm warnings for the island by late Thursday, and the storm weakened to a tropical depression Friday.

Paula had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph), with some higher gusts, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The storm was moving east at about 14 mph (22 kph), 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 (2.5 to 5 centimeters) 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 (25 centimeters) of rain in some areas of the island, bringing threats of flash floods and mudslides, forecasters said. A storm surge was expected to raise water levels by as much as 1 to 3 feet (30-60 centimeters) above normal tide levels in central Cuba.

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

Earlier in the day 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 Thursday morning.

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.”

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. More than a thousand 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 low 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 in Cuba, causing the only fatality associated with the storm so far.

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