Hurricane batters storm-weary Cuba

Hurricane Paloma slammed into southern Cuba on Saturday as authorities scrambled to move hundreds of thousands of people to safer ground and protect crops on an island still reeling from two other devastating storms.

Paloma made landfall near Santa Cruz del Sur as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, but it quickly weakened into a still-ferocious Category 3 with winds of 120 mph and torrential rains, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

In the central-eastern province of Camaguey alone, more than 220,000 people were moved from low-lying, vulnerable areas to higher ground. Another 170,000 people were ordered to leave in the eastern province of Las Tunas.

Former President Fidel Castro warned in an essay published in Cuban state media Saturday that Paloma would damage roads and crops planted after hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit in late August and early September. Those storms caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage and destroyed nearly a third of Cuba's crops.

In the southern city of Camaguey, 79-year-old Rosa Perez was waiting out the storm at a government shelter at the University of Camaguey with her 83-year-old husband and about 900 others from the town of Santa Cruz del Sur.

Perez was a toddler when she watched her mother, older sister and about 40 other relatives swept away in a storm surge during a 1932 hurricane that killed about 3,000 people.

“We're just waiting to see what happens to our home and our beach,” she said nervously.

Outside, on the nearly deserted, flooded streets of the provincial capital, four men struggled in the pouring rain to carry a refrigerator to a more secure building.

Paloma was moving northeastward at about 10 mph and was expected to hit the open Atlantic early today.

Forecasters said the storm was expected to weaken as it crossed Cuba overnight.

Paloma's outer rain bands were already lashing Cuba's southern coast after the storm knocked out power across much of Grand Cayman Island.

On Grand Cayman, the late-season storm downed trees and flooded low-lying areas and ripped roofs off some buildings, but residents appeared to ride out the storm unscathed.