Hurricane Paula hugs Cuban coast

VINALES, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Paula dumped rain on Cuba’s western tobacco-growing province on Thursday as the small hurricane hugged the island’s northern coast, but it was expected to weaken as it moved eastward toward the Cuban capital Havana, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Cuba’s government replaced hurricane warnings for the western province of Pinar del Rio with a tropical storm warning, suggesting it did not expect a major impact from the Category 1 hurricane, the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

“There’s no real danger … just some rain. We took precautions, we tied down the roof and bought food and the government evacuated some people,” said Ruben, 33, a local resident sheltering from the rain in the picturesque western hill town of Vinales. He did not give his full name.

Cuban state media said around 120 people had been evacuated as a precaution from low-lying areas in Pinar del Rio, which along with other parts of communist-ruled Cuba was badly hit by destructive hurricanes in 2008.

Paula appeared to pose no similar threat of destruction and significant damage to homes and buildings was not expected, Cuban media reported.

The Miami-based U.S. hurricane center said Paula, which it described as a “small” hurricane, was moving along Cuba’s northern coast, carrying top sustained winds of 75 miles per hour. Hurricane force winds only extended out up to 10 miles from its center.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), its center was located about 135 miles west of the Cuban capital Havana, which it was expected to reach later on Thursday or early on Friday as a tropical storm as it moved east along the north coast.

“Paula is forecast to weaken to a tropical storm later today,” the hurricane center said. A tropical storm has winds between 39 and 73 mph.

A tropical storm watch was also in effect for the Florida Keys, 90 miles north of Cuba.

Paula was the ninth hurricane of the busy 2010 Atlantic season.

CUBANS PROTECT HOMES, TOBACCO FIELDS

Residents of Pinar del Rio, which grows the premium tobacco to make Cuba’s world-famous cigars, had secured their homes and farms, mindful of the hurricane destruction in 2008.

“We’re taking precautions because in the 2008 hurricane we lost the roof of our house,” said Lazaro Castillo, 35, as he earlier tied sandbags to the roof of his home in Vinales.

Local officials said fields of fresh tobacco had been protected and leaves from the previous harvest safely stored.

A weather station located on the western tip of Cuba had reported one wind gust of 60 miles per hour, the U.S. hurricane center said.

The center said Paula is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 3 to 6 inches with up to 10 inches possible in parts of western and central Cuba. In mountainous areas, the rain could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it said.

Paula, the 16th named storm of the 2010 Atlantic season, grazed Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Wednesday but inflicted little damage to the tourist resorts on the country’s Caribbean coast.

The hurricane did not affect any of Mexico’s main offshore oil-producing regions in the Gulf of Mexico and was not expected to move into the U.S. oil and gas fields in the Gulf.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks, Nelson Acosta; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Beech)

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