Strengthening storm hits Caymans, threatens Cuba

Late-season Hurricane Paloma strengthened into a Category 3 storm as it lashed the Cayman Islands with wind and rain Friday.

Lights flickered across Grand Cayman, where tourists gathered on balconies and beaches to watch the storm whip up 10-foot waves.

The hurricane's center was expected to pass near Grand Cayman during the night or early today, then gain strength and punch Cuba, already suffering from billions of dollars in damage from two previous hurricanes this season.

Cuba's official newspaper, Granma, recalling past late-season hurricanes such as a 1932 storm that killed about 3,000 people, said Paloma poses “a potential danger for the island.” The storm could grow into a Category 3 hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph as it heads toward Cuba's midsection, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The Cayman Islands government asked all hotels to remove guests from the ground and first floors. Nearly 40 people were already staying in the islands' seven shelters.

“We have asked everybody to come off the streets and to be home and safe right now,” hazard management director Barbara Carby said.

Ike and Hurricane Gustav, which struck Cuba in late August, together caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage. Nearly a third of Cuba's crops were destroyed.

Forecasters expect Paloma to weaken into a tropical storm over Cuba and then steer south of Florida through the Bahamas and into the Atlantic.