Hurricane Paula weakens en route to Cuba
HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Paula shrank and weakened on Wednesday as it headed for western Cuba on a path toward the communist-led island's crumbling capital.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had dropped to a minimal Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, with top winds of 85 miles per hour that extended just 10 miles from the eye.
Its center was about 45 miles west of Cuba's westernmost province, Pinar del Rio, where landfall was expected late on Wednesday or early Thursday as the storm moved north-northeast at 5 mph.
Earlier in the day, Paula, the 16th named storm of the busy 2010 Atlantic season and the ninth hurricane, grazed Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula 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.
The Miami-based hurricane center said it was on a path to hit Havana by early on Friday and posted tropical storm warnings for the city where high winds and heavy rains routinely topple decaying buildings.
Cuba suffers few deaths from hurricanes because evacuations are mandatory and efficiently executed.
Cuba still has not fully recovered from three powerful hurricanes that struck in 2008, causing $10 billion in damage and dealing a serious blow to the country's fragile economy.
Paula was not expected to be nearly as damaging. The hurricane center called it a "small hurricane."
A tropical storm watch also was issued for part of the Florida Keys, 90 miles north of Cuba, reflecting forecasters' uncertainty about where the storm will go.
Officials in Pinar del Rio warned residents to remain alert, but there was no word yet on evacuations.
Cuba's weather service said heavy rains were beginning to sweep across the area and winds up to 37 mph.
Officials said freshly planted fields of the province's prized tobacco, from which world-famous Cuban cigars are made, had been covered and leaves from the previous harvest safely stored.
Cuban television said the local banana harvest had been speeded up and livestock moved to safe areas. Pinar del Rio is not a big sugar-producing region on the island.
The hurricane center said the storm could dump 3 to 6 inches of rain, with up to 10 inches possible.
Paula spared Central America's coffee-growing region, battered this year by heavy rains.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Isela Serrano in Cancun; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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